Attorney General Eric Holder didn’t say much that we didn’t already know in his speech on voting rights last night at the LBJ presidential library in Austin. But in light of the GOP’s unprecedented campaign to block Democrats from voting, Holder's full-throated defense of the franchise was encouraging. The ACLU called the AG's remarks "historic." Adam Serwer of Mother Jones tweeted, "Holder declares war on the war on voting."
I wouldn’t go that far – Holder didn't directly denounce the wave of voter suppression legislation passed by Republicans in more than a dozen states this year – but it was good to hear him affirm that "The right to vote is not only the cornerstone of our system of government; it is the lifeblood of our democracy." The AG defended the Voting Rights Act, which LBJ signed in 1965, as a "a powerful tool in combating discrimination for decades." He also took issue with five different lawsuits that seek to declare a key section of the Act unconstitutional, noting that "in jurisdictions across the country – both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common."
Holder referenced by a fiery speech by Rep. John Lewis on the House floor earlier this year, where the veteran civil rights leader said that "voting rights are under attack in America," and noted that Lewis "was echoing more recent concerns about some of the state-level voting law changes we’ve seen this legislative season."
In the last year, Republican governors and state legislators have passed laws to restrict voter registration drives, require birth certificates to register to vote, curtail early voting, mandate government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot and disenfranchise ex-felons who’ve served their time. "These new laws could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012," found the Brennan Center for Justice, which noted that "these new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities," all of whom tend to lean Democratic.
Holder confirmed that the DOJ is closely scrutinizing new photo ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, which could disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters, and restrictions on voter restriction drives in Florida. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, DOJ has the authority to “preclear” or reject these laws in the 16 states covered by the VRA. The department could also block the laws under Section 2 of the Act, which "prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race [or] color."
Said Holder: "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." Just how aggressive DOJ will be in combating these laws remains to be seen – the department has sent pointed questions to states like Texas and South Carolina but has yet to block or modify any of them (though it did refuse to preclear redistricting maps drawn by Texas Republicans for Congress and the state house, which deprived Hispanic residents of the new seats they deserve based on population growth).
Holder also addressed the conservative bogeyman of "voter fraud," which Republicans constantly invoke to justify restrictive voting laws, saying that "voter fraud is not acceptable – and will not be tolerated by this Justice Department," while also noting that "those on all sides of this debate have acknowledged that in-person voting fraud is uncommon." Indeed, as I reported earlier this year, a major investigation by the Bush Justice Department between 2002 to 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter, and convicted only 86 people for alleged fraud – out of 300 million votes cast during that period.
The speech did contain one piece of news: the Obama Administration will support legislation introduced by Senators Chuck Schumer and Ben Cardin – based on a bill Obama sponsored as a senator in 2007 – to crack down on deceptive election practices. But this legislation, while a welcome development, wouldn’t prevent or repeal the new GOP laws that have been enacted this year.
As DOJ reviews the new laws, a flood of action is already underway in the states – including a strong pushback by voting-rights advocates. Last month voters in Maine repealed the GOP’s elimination of Election Day voter registration. Yesterday the ACLU sued the state of Wisconsin, alleging that the state’s new photo ID law "imposes a severe and undue burden on the fundamental right to vote." Activists in Ohio recently gathered enough signatures to force a ballot referendum in 2012 on cutbacks in early voting and to block the implementation of the law until voters have their say. And this week the Pennsylvania legislature shelved a proposed voter ID law, at least for this year, due to internal divisions within the GOP caucus.
Last weekend, 25,000 people marched in New York to protest the GOP’s war on voting. "Occupy the Voting Booth," said one sign in the crowd. It’s good that Holder recognizes that "today, we cannot – and must not - take the right to vote for granted." Let’s hope his department’s actions don't turn out to be too little, too late.
• The GOP War on Voting