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DOJ Won’t Wait for Congress to Revise Voting Law; Texas Will Be Preclearance Battleground

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by Publius
Posted July 25, 2013, 12:01 PM

The Washington Post reports:

The Justice Department is preparing to take fresh legal action in a string of voting rights cases across the nation, U.S. officials said, part of a new attempt to blunt the impact of a Supreme Court ruling that the Obama administration has warned will imperil minority representation.

The decision to challenge state officials marks an aggressive effort to continue policing voting rights issues and follows a ruling by the court last month that invalidated a critical part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The justices threw out a part of the act that determined which states with a history of discrimination had to be granted Justice Department or court approval before making voting law changes.

In the coming weeks, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is expected to announce that the Justice Department is using other sections of the Voting Rights Act to bring lawsuits or take other legal action to prevent states from implementing certain laws, including requirements to present certain kinds of identification in order to vote. The department is also expected to try to force certain states to get approval, or “pre-clearance,” before they can change their election laws.

“Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the Court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to subject states to pre-clearance as necessary,” Holder said in a speech Thursday morning in Philadelphia. “My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against such discrimination wherever it is found.”

Holder announced that, in a first step, the department will support a lawsuit in Texas that was brought by a coalition of Democratic legislators and civil rights groups against the state’s redistricting plan.

Holder said he is asking a federal judge to require Texas to submit all voting law changes to the Justice Department for approval for a ten-year period because of its history of discrimination.

“It’s a pretty clear sign that a lawsuit against the Texas voter-ID law is also on the way,” said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman. Miller said Justice may also sue North Carolina if that state passes a new voter ID law.

The Obama administration had opposed the Texas voter-ID law signed in 2011 by Gov. Rick Perry (R), saying it endangered minority voting rights. Texas was one of eight states that passed voter-ID laws.

Supporters of the measures, which were signed by seven Republican governors and one independent, said that requiring voters to show specific photo IDs would prevent voter fraud. But critics of the laws said that they could hurt turnout among minority voters and others.

Because of Texas’s history of discrimination, the voter-ID law had to be cleared by the Justice Department. The department blocked the law, saying it would endanger minority voting rights. Texas sued the Justice Department, leading to a week-long trial last summer.

Last August, the U.S. District Court in Washington blocked the law from going into effect, ruling that the legislation would impose “strict, unforgiving burdens” on poor, minority voters.

But just hours after the recent Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act ruling, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said Texas would move forward with its voter-ID law and would also carry out redistricting changes that had been mired in court battles.

In North Carolina, the Republican legislature is set to pass one of the strictest voting laws in the country that voting rights advocates say will hurt minority voters because the law will make it harder to register and vote.

Holder hinted at the Justice Department’s voting rights strategy a week ago at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Orlando when he sharply criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act.

“Let me be clear,” Holder said in a speech. “This was a deeply disappointing and flawed decision. It dealt a serious setback to the cause of voting rights . . . And this is why protecting the fundamental right to vote — for all Americans — will continue to be a top priority for the Department of Justice so long as I have the privilege of serving as attorney general.”

The court did not strike down the law itself or the provision that calls for special scrutiny of states with a history of discrimination. But it said that Congress has to come up with a new formula based on current data to determine which states should be subject to the requirements.

Texas is the largest state that was covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal approval of any voting changes in states with a history of discrimination. The act also covers Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, Alaska, Arizona and parts of seven other states, including North Carolina.

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