By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Friday allowed Texas to implement a law requiring photo identification at the ballot box, reversing a lower court decision that blocked the measure on the grounds it could be discriminatory against racial minorities.
In a 2-1 decision, a panel from the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law, which was designed as a fix for previous voter ID legislation struck down for being discriminatory.
The panel said the new legislation enacted last year had "improvements for disadvantaged minority voters," the latest chapter in a seven-year dispute over voter ID at the ballot box in Texas, the most-populous Republican-controlled state.
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The move comes as several Republican-controlled states have pushed voter ID laws they say will prevent fraud at the ballot box. Democrats contend fraud is exceedingly rare and the real intention is to disenfranchise racial minorities, who typically support Democrats and are also less likely to have the required identification.
Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the decision.
"Safeguarding the integrity of our elections is essential to preserving our democracy," he said in a statement.
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which fought against the measure, said: "No law should be allowed to stand that is merely built on the back of a plainly discriminatory law."
The state's original law in 2011 was considered one of the nation's strictest such measures and its opponents said could have excluded up to 600,000 voters.
After years of court losses, Republican Governor Greg Abbott in June signed the new measure, which relaxed some photo identification requirements.
The 5th Circuit judges said the district court in August made a mistake when it halted the law, seeing it as being tainted by the earlier measure struck down by the courts.
The 5th Circuit panel said the new law fixed the flaws of the previous legislation.
Both laws listed authorized photo IDs needed for voting, including a driver's license, U.S. military ID, a U.S. passport and a Texas concealed handgun license.
The new law allows people who cannot produce an authorized photo ID to show other documentation, such as a utility bill, and sign an affidavit stating they had a reasonable impediment in presenting an authorized photo ID.
Critics contend the new law could be used to intimidate voters, who could face several years in prison if they are found to have lied in affidavits.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)