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July 25, 2013

Justice Dept. to challenge states on voting rights

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Thursday it will open a new front in the battle for voter protections, a response to last month's Supreme Court ruling that dealt a major setback to the Voting Rights Act.

In a speech to the National Urban League in Philadelphia, Attorney General Holder said that as its first move, the Justice Department is asking a federal court in San Antonio to require the state of Texas to obtain advance approval before putting in place future political redistricting or other voting changes.

Holder called the Voting Rights Act "the cornerstone of modern civil rights law" and said that "we cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve."

The Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote, threw out the most powerful part of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, the law that became a major turning point in black Americans' struggle for equal rights and political power.

The move in Texas is the department's first action to further safeguard voting rights following the Supreme Court June 25 decision, said Holder, "but it will not be our last."

"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 ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected," Holder said.

The requirement to obtain advance approval from either the department or a federal court before changing voting laws is available under the Voting Rights Act when intentional discrimination against voters is found. If the court in San Antonio sides with the Justice Department position, the preapproval requirement would apply for 10 years.

The section of the Voting Rights Act Holder invoked can be applied to all types of voting changes — from moving the location of a polling place to imposing stringent requirements such as photo identification at the polls.

On Wednesday, the Republican-dominated North Carolina Senate gave preliminary approval to sweeping election law changes, including requiring voters to present photo ID at the polls and shortening early voting by a week.

In the Texas case, the department is not directly intervening but is filing what's known as a statement of interest in support of the private groups that have filed suit.

Holder said that based on evidence of intentional racial discrimination presented last year in a redistricting case in Texas, "we believe that the state of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices."

In Texas, there is a history of "pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities," Holder added.

A three-judge panel in San Antonio has been looking at Texas voting maps since 2011, when the court threw out boundaries drawn by a then-GOP supermajority in the statehouse.

An ensuing legal battle between the state and a coalition of minority rights groups wreaked havoc on the 2012 elections in Texas, delaying party primaries that ultimately used temporary maps drawn by the court.

Under the direction of GOP Gov. Rick Perry last month, the Legislature ratified those interim maps as permanent over the objection of Democrats, who still believe the maps are biased and underrepresent minorities. Aides to Perry did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Following Holder's speech Thursday, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott tweeted, "I'll fight Obama's effort to control our elections & I'll fight against cheating at the ballot box." Abbott, a Republican, is running for governor.

The case in San Antonio deals with state and congressional redistricting.

Last year, a federal court Washington, D.C., found that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minorities in drawing political maps and that the state's voter ID law would disenfranchise minority voters. But the Supreme Court decision throwing out part of the Voting Rights Act removed the power of that court to stop those measures from going into effect.

Based on those findings, though, minority groups in San Antonio asked that three-judge panel last month to adopt the findings of the D.C. court and require Texas to submit all proposed changes to voting laws for prior court review. Holder's announcement bolsters the argument by the minority groups by placing Justice Department firmly on their side.

Last month, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the part of the Voting Rights Act under which all or parts of 15 mainly Southern states had been required to submit all voting changes for approval from Washington before they could take effect.

The decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said it was no longer fair to subject those jurisdictions to strict federal monitoring based on data that is at least 40 years old. The extraordinary intrusion on state power to conduct elections could only be justified by current conditions, Roberts said.

"There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions," he said.

 

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