Texas will launch a challenge to a central piece of civil rights legislation in a Washington court on Monday in a case the Obama administration has characterised as a fight to protect the right to vote.
The five-day hearing will rule on whether the US justice department has the power to block Texas from implementing a state law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls – a move critics say will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of people, principally Latinos and other minorities.
The decision by a federal court is likely to have a bearing on a flood of similar legislation in other states over recent years although the issue is expected to end up before the supreme court.
The Obama administration blocked the Texas legislation using a clause in the 1965 Voting Rights Act which requires 16 states with a history of discriminatory laws and practices to clear all or some changes in voting laws and constituency boundaries with the justice department.
The Texas attorney-general, Greg Abbott, argues that the Voting Rights Act does not apply because the state is simply enforcing anti-fraud measures in order to "protect the integrity of the vote".
But civil rights groups say the voter ID law discriminates against minorities, and to a lesser extent the young and the old, who are less likely to hold driving licences, the primary means of identification issued by Texas state authorities.
They say the move, passed by a Republican-controlled state legislature with the support of the governor, Rick Perry, is intended to discourage black and Latino voters who are more likely to support the Democratic party. Critics note that the law recognises gun permits as a legitimate form of identification but not student cards issued by the state.
The justice department estimates that there are 600,000 people registered to vote in Texas whose names are not on driving licence or state identification databases.
The US supreme court in 2008 upheld the right of states to require voters to produce identification but that case, involving Indiana, did not touch on the voting rights act. Since then, 15 other states have passed laws requiring voters to show photo identification, although some of them offer alternatives.
The justice department has also blocked the implementation of voter ID laws in South Carolina and is expected to do so in Mississippi and Florida – all states subject to the approval requirements of the Voting Rights Act.
Similar legal battles are being fought over attempts by some states to redraw constituency boundaries without justice department approval.
The attorney-general, Eric Holder, on Saturday told a national Latino conference that the justice department is attempting to protect voting rights in the face of discriminatory laws.
"We'll do everything in our power to stand vigilant against any and all measures that threaten to undermine the effectiveness and integrity of our elections systems and to infringe on the single most important right of American citizenship: the right to vote," he said.
The Obama administration is suing Florida, which delivered up the decisive but heavily disputed victory for George Bush in the 2000 presidential election, over its attempts to purge the voter roll of people the state claims may not be American citizens.
Critics have described the move as "voter suppression" by the state's Republican administration aimed at stripping the ballot from people more likely to support Democrats.
Federal officials say that the state is obliged to get justice department approval for the move under the Voting Rights Act.
The flood of new voting laws is a central focus of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People conference in Houston, Texas this week where the organisation's leaders say that voter ID legislation and challenges to the Voting Rights Act amount to a fresh assault on civil rights legislation.
"The effort to suppress the vote is not a new thing," said Leon Russell, vice-chairman of the NAACP board. "What we've seen in the last two years, though, is the most egregious effort to compound and collect every single method that anybody could think of that would discourage a person to vote and put it in a piece of legislation and inflict it on our community."
Critics say there is little evidence of comprehensive identity fraud in US elections. A draft of a 2007 report by the federally run Election Assistance Commission found that "there is widespread but not unanimous agreement (among experts) that there is little polling place fraud".
However, its conclusion was changed before the report was released by the Bush administration to say that there is a "great deal of debate" on the issue.
Abbott said Texas has convicted 50 people for voter fraud over the past decade.
Texas may face a struggle to win its case.
In May, Alabama challenged the validity of the voting rights act over a justice department block on the redrawing of constituency boundaries.
A US appeals court judge, David Tatel, said in rejecting Alabama's case that the implementation of the Voting Rights Act is legitimate because it is intended to stop racially motivated disenfranchisement which he called "one of the greatest evils".
Tatel is sitting on the bench hearing the Texas case this week.
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