Eric Holder delivers impassioned defense of voting rights

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (Pic by ryanjreilly, via Flickr)

During a speech given in Texas last night, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder criticized legal challenges launched by states against the section of the Voting Rights Act that requires approval of election laws in certain areas. Holder also affirmed the need for vigilance against laws aimed at rolling back voting rights.

According to a draft of his speech released to the press, Holder also said that he was taking a “thorough” look into Florida’s controversial new elections law.

“We’re also examining a number of changes that Florida has made to its electoral process,” he said, “including changes to the procedures governing third-party voter registration organizations, as well as changes to early voting procedures, including the number of days in the early voting period.”

“Although I cannot go into detail about the ongoing review of these and other state-law changes,” he continued, “I can assure you that it will be thorough — and fair. We will examine the facts, and we will apply the law. If a state passes a new voting law and meets its burden of showing that the law is not discriminatory, we will follow the law and approve the change. And where a state can’t meet this burden, we will object as part of our obligation under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”

Florida has not been the only state facing scrutiny from the federal government. Holder also mentioned interest in other states such as Texas and South Carolina. Both states were among several that enacted new photo ID requirements to vote.

Holder said during his speech (according to the prepared remarks):

Despite this history, and despite our nation’s long tradition of extending voting rights – to non-property owners and women, to people of color and Native Americans, and to younger Americans – today, a growing number of our fellow citizens are worried about the same disparities, divisions, and problems that – nearly five decades ago – LBJ devoted his Presidency to addressing. In my travels across this country, I’ve heard a consistent drumbeat of concern from many Americans, who – often for the first time in their lives – now have reason to believe that we are failing to live up to one of our nation’s most noble, and essential, ideals.

As Congressman John Lewis described it, in a speech on the House floor this summer, the voting rights that he worked throughout his life – and nearly gave his life – to ensure are, “under attack… [by] a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, [and] minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.” Not only was he referring to the all-too-common deceptive practices we’ve been fighting for years. He was echoing more recent concerns about some of the state-level voting law changes we’ve seen this legislative season.

Since January, more than a dozen states have advanced new voting measures. Some of these new laws are currently under review by the Justice Department, based on our obligations under the Voting Rights Act.

Holder also spoke about recent challenges to the Voting Rights Act, specifically the section of the law that requires federal “preclearance” of election laws in certain areas. In October, Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning launched a legal complaint against that requirement.

In his filing, Browing argued that federal preclearance requirements for state election laws are “unconstitutional” and that “subjecting Florida counties and other jurisdictions covered exclusively under the language minority provisions of the [Voting Rights Act] to pre-clearance is not a rational, congruent, or proportional means of enforcing the Fourteenth and/or Fifteenth Amendments and violates the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the U.S. Constitution.”

Last night, Holder said:

Despite the long history of support for Section 5, this keystone of our voting rights laws is now being challenged five years after its reauthorization as unconstitutional in no fewer than five lawsuits. Each of these lawsuits claims that we’ve attained a new era of electoral equality, that America in 2011 has moved beyond the challenges of 1965, and that Section 5 is no longer necessary.

I wish this were the case. The reality is that – in jurisdictions across the country – both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common. And we don’t have to look far to see recent proof.

Holder described recent problems with Texas and Louisiana’s redistricting efforts, which he said “failed to show the absence of discrimination.” Holder said, “To those who argue that Section 5 is no longer necessary — these and other examples are proof that we still need this critical tool to combat discrimination and safeguard the right to vote.”

The attorney general also announced that the issue of protecting voting rights in the country was a moral imperative that required public support.

“As concerns about the protection of this right and the integrity of our election systems become an increasingly prominent part of our national dialogue, we must consider some important questions,” he said. “It is time to ask: What kind of nation — and what kind of people — do we want to be? Are we willing to allow this era — our era — to be remembered as the age when our nation’s proud tradition of expanding the franchise ended? Are we willing to allow this time — our time — to be recorded in history as the age when the long-held belief that, in this country, every citizen has the chance — and the right — to help shape their government, became a relic of our past, instead of a guidepost for our future?”

Holder said new legislation that was formerly introduced in the Senate by then-Sen. Barack Obama, would be reintroduced by Sens. Charles Schumer and Ben Cardin. The law “would establish tough criminal penalties for those who engage in fraudulent voting practices — and would help to ensure that citizens have complete and accurate information about where and when to vote,” he said.

“Despite so many decades of struggle, sacrifice, and achievement — we must remain ever vigilant in safeguarding our most basic and important right,” he concluded. “Too many recent actions have the potential to reverse the progress that defines us — and has made this nation exceptional, as well as an example for all the world. We must be true to the arc of America’s history, which compels us to be more inclusive with regard to the franchise. And we must never forget the purpose that — more than two centuries ago — inspired our nation’s founding, and now must guide us forward.”