Attorney general seeks to reassert federal power over state voting laws

Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday said he will seek to require that the state of Texas clear all of its voting changes with the federal government, firing the opening salvo in a new battle over the Voting Rights Act. 

"This is the department’s first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last," Holder said in Philadelphia, according to prepared remarks.

The Supreme Court last month ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the voting law's requirement that states with a history of discrimination clear changes to their polling practices was unconstitutional, putting enforcement of the law in doubt.

ADVERTISEMENT
But Holder, in a speech on Thursday at the National Urban League, said the Obama administration will try to revive the preclearance system in court.

"Today I am announcing that the Justice Department will ask a federal court in Texas to subject the State of Texas to a preclearance regime similar to the one required by Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act," Holder said.

The attorney general argued the move to put Texas under such a system is made possible by another portion of the voting law that the court did not strike down. He said states can be brought back under a "preapproval" process when "intentional voting discrimination is found."

He said a redistricting case last year provides all the evidence a court would need to bring Texas's voting laws under federal review.

"Based on the evidence of intentional racial discrimination that was presented last year in the redistricting case, Texas v. Holder — as well as the history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities that the Supreme Court itself has recognized — we believe that the State of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices," he said.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) blasted Holder's move as "demonstrating utter contempt for our country's system of checks and balances, not to mention the U.S. Constitution."
 
“This end-run around the Supreme Court undermines the will of the people of Texas, and casts unfair aspersions on our state's common-sense efforts to preserve the integrity of our elections process." 

"The goal of the administration… is to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said to reporters aboard Air Force One. "That includes protecting the voting rights of all Americans who are eligible to vote. That’s the goal here. I would assume that that would be a goal that would also be supported by congressional Republicans. We’ll see."

The Justice Department will be filing a “statement of interest” in a lawsuit in San Antonio. Judges there are reviewing a district map drawn up by the state’s GOP majority that opponents say discriminates against Hispanics. 

Texas lawmakers approved the new district maps on an interim basis last month.

The fight comes after the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in June struck down a part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had required certain states with documented histories of racial discrimination — most of them in the South — to get federal approval before changing their voting procedures.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the Section 4 formula dictating which states are subject to the additional scrutiny is unconstitutional. Roberts left intact Congress's Section 5 powers to monitor elections to ensure fairness, but emphasized that lawmakers would have to pass new legislation to determine which states, if any, require the federal monitoring.

"Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions," Roberts wrote.

President Obama denounced the Supreme Court ruling, saying it "upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent."

Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) echoed Obama's criticism, saying he was "deeply concerned that Congress will not have the will to fix what the Supreme Court has broken.” Lewis has become a leader of the congressional push to pass a new voting law.

In the wake of the decision, some states moved quickly to implement new voting rules that had been held up by the pre-clearance requirement.

On the same day of the Supreme Court ruling, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that a state-passed voter ID law would "take effect immediately." The Texas law requires people present state-issued photo identification before voting, which supporters say is needed to prevent voting fraud.

Holder on Thursday defended the pre-clearance system that the high court struck down, arguing it “served as a potent tool for addressing inequities in our election systems."

"I believe we must regard this setback not as a defeat, but as an historic opportunity: for Congress to restore, and even to strengthen, modern voting protections,” Holder said.

But the attorney general also said administration officials would not sit idly by while they wait for lawmakers to pass new legislation.

"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 preclearance as necessary. My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against such discrimination wherever it is found."

— This story was last updated at 2:21 p.m.