Justice Department to Take Action on State Voting Laws

The U.S. Justice Department, deprived by the Supreme Court of the power to pre-emptively halt state voting laws it finds discriminatory, will seek a federal court ruling to force Texas to get approval before changing any of its election laws.

“We believe the state of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices,” Attorney General Eric Holder Holder said in prepared remarks for the National Urban League Annual Conference in Philadelphia.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a cornerstone of the Voting Rights Act when it ruled invalid a rule that certain states, including Texas, must get Justice Department approval before changing their election rules.

In the wake of that decision, which came after the law was challenged by Shelby County, Alabama, Holder has pledged to aggressively use the department’s other tools to block or halt any new state laws it views as discriminatory.

“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. The department plans to “fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to subject states to preclearance as necessary.”

New Front

The Justice Department’s action opens a new front on a long-running Obama administration effort to block state voting law changes and comes as states including North Carolina are beginning to consider more restrictive election proposals for the first time since the court’s June decision.

Holder’s announcement comes less than a month after long-running fight over Texas congressional maps came to an end. Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law the state’s interim election maps used in the 2012 elections shortly after the Supreme Court ruling.

Perry, in a statement today, said the move demonstrated “utter contempt for our country’s 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,” Perry said.

Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn said in a statement that the decision “has nothing to do with protecting voting rights and everything to do with advancing a partisan political agenda.”

Texas Maps

Texas civil rights groups are seeking court intervention to require changes in those election maps, which were revised after the Justice Department successfully blocked the state’s 2011 redistricting effort. Federal judges struck down that plan, finding that it intentionally discriminated against minorities.

Richard L. Hasen, a law and political science professor at the University of California Irvine, called Holder’s move “something of a high stakes gamble” that might pay off.

“If it works, it will restore a piece, but not the majority, of what Section 5 did before the Supreme Court gutted it in its recent Shelby County case,” said Hasen, an election law expert.

The Justice Department later today will file a statement of support in support of the civil rights groups, putting the Obama administration behind their effort to require a federal court in Texas to subject the state to preclearance by a court or the Justice Department.

Law Defended

Greg Abbott, Texas’s attorney general, defended the election map signed into law by Perry last month in a filing in the case against the state civil rights groups. He said that the state made changes to the 2011 maps, making claims of discrimination based on the original redistricting effort invalid.

The Justice Department’s latest effort would allow courts to add a state or local government to the preclearance requirement if it is found to have enacted intentionally discriminatory voting measures.

Holder said the state had “a history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities,” giving the Justice Department the option of requesting the state go through a preclearance process before future changes to voting laws.

Federal Review

Under the Section 5 preclearance requirement, all or parts of 15 states had to get federal approval before changing election districts, amending voting rules or even moving a polling place. The Justice Department used that provision, which covered virtually the entire South, to object to more than 2,400 state and local voting changes from 1982 to 2006.

The Supreme Court majority faulted Congress for relying on a decades-old formula for determining which states were covered by the preclearance requirement, also known as Section 5. The formula ties coverage to voter registration rates, turnout and ballot-box rules in the 1960s and early 1970s.

House and Senate lawmakers have held hearings on potential changes to the formula, with support coming from both sides of the aisle. Holder has pushed lawmakers to introduce legislation and move forward on changes as fast as possible.

“Let me be very clear: these tools are no substitute for legislation that will fill the void left by the Supreme Court’s decision,” Holder said in his remarks.

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