U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he is concerned about new state laws requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, entering a controversy over whether the measures suppress minority turnout.
The Justice Department is conducting a “thorough and fair” review of voter identification laws enacted this year in South Carolina and Texas, Holder said in remarks prepared for delivery today at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library & Museum in Austin, Texas. The Justice Department also is examining a Florida law that sets new requirements for groups holding voter-signup drives and shortens early ballot periods, Holder said.
Democrats and Republicans are at odds over voting laws in advance of the 2012 elections. Democrats say they are seeking to ensure voters’ access to the polls while Republicans argue more needs to be done to prevent voter fraud.
Florida, South Carolina and Texas are among 16 states or parts of states that must obtain permission from the Justice Department or a federal court before redrawing their district lines or changing election procedures because of a history of voting rights violations. The permission is required under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
“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,” Holder said in the prepared remarks. “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.”
Voting Rights Act
The Justice Department reviews of new voting procedures and proposed election maps are attracting attention during the first redistricting with a Democrat in the White House since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, said Doug Chapin, director of an elections-administration program at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs in Minneapolis.
Eight states enacted new voter identification requirements or tightened existing ones this year, according to Jennie Bowser, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Requiring voters to show government-issued identification is a way “to make it easy to vote but hard to cheat,” said Kris Kobach, secretary of state in Kansas, which enacted a new voter identification law this year.
“It’s disappointing to see the Justice Department speak out against these laws when it’s the Justice Department’s shared responsibility along with the states to prevent voter fraud,” Kobach said in an interview.
Civil Rights Groups
Civil rights groups, which say the laws suppress turnout by minority voters and senior citizens, are “pinning their hopes on the Justice Department turning down those laws,” Chapin said.
The Justice Department asked South Carolina and Texas to provide additional information after receiving their initial submissions earlier this year.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit today in Milwaukee challenging Wisconsin’s new photo identification law as unconstitutionally burdening the rights of senior citizens, minorities and other voters.
Holder also said Texas’s proposed state House and congressional redistricting plans provide too few opportunities for Hispanic representation.
“The reality is that -- in jurisdictions across the country -- both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common,” Holder said.
Holder called for automatic voter registration, neutral redistricting, and legislation creating new penalties for those who engage in fraudulent practices designed to deceive voters.