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Holder criticizes states' restrictive voting laws


U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder today leveled the Obama administration's strongest criticism yet at new voting laws that, for example, require photo ID's at the polls, limit early voting, and restrict periods for registration.

In a speech prepared for delivery at the LBJ Library at the University of Texas in Austin, Holder quoted Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a longtime civil rights leader, who said recently that voting rights 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." 

What Lewis was talking about, Holder said, was concerns about "some of the state-level voting law changes we’ve seen this legislative season."

The Justice Department is now reviewing some of those new laws. "We will examine the facts, and we will apply the law," Holder said.

"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 the Voting Rights Act, he said.

That law, Holder said, is being challenged in at least five lawsuits. And the U.S. Supreme Court recently expressed the view that the time may be ending when close review by the Justice Department is required for changes in voting procedures in states with a history of racial discriminating at the polls. Perhaps, some members of the court said, that requirement of the Voting Rights Act 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," Holder said.

He called the recent effort at congressional and legislative redistricting in Texas "precisely the kind of discrimination" that the Voting Rights Act was intended to block. The Supreme Court has agreed to review the state's newly drawn districts and a lower federal court's substitution of a different plan. 

New census data showed Texas gaining more than four million new residents, most of them Latinos, allowing the state four new seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. But Texas, Holder said, "proposed adding zero additional seats in which Hispanics would have the electoral opportunity envisioned by the Voting Rights Act.

"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. 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?