Justice Department to take on states over voting rights

Anita Kumar

The Obama administration announced Thursday that it will go to court to contest a series of laws around the country as part of an aggressive campaign to restore some of the federal oversight that was stripped from the Voting Rights Act recently by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Justice Department filed its first challenge Thursday, asking a judge to require Texas to seek permission from the federal government before making voting changes because of the state’s history of discrimination. That case involves alleged racial gerrymandering against Hispanics and could be extended to challenge Texas’ new voter photo ID law.

Last week, a Native rights organization asked for federal oversight a lawsuit against the state of Alaska over alleged language discrimination at precincts in the southwest part of the state. Several states in the South and Southwest could face similar lawsuits with similar demands for oversight or Justice Department preclearance.

“This is the department’s first action to protect voting rights following the (Supreme Court) ... decision, but it will not be our last,” Attorney General Eric Holder told a National Urban League conference in Philadelphia on Thursday. “My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination wherever it is found.”

Civil rights groups and African-American lawmakers welcomed the decision, as did the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

They had urged President Barack Obama to wade into the issue after a divided Supreme Court struck down a centerpiece of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required nine states, including Alaska, to receive federal approval for electoral revisions. Some supporters said they were surprised at how quickly the administration intervened.

“I think it’s a great move,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, chairwoman of the 42-member Congressional Black Caucus. “I think the Civil Rights Division and the Justice Department in general should make sure that the citizens of this country have fair and equal treatment.”

But Texas officials, from Austin to Washington, blasted the decision, accusing the Obama administration of “bullying” the state for political reasons.

“Once again, the Obama administration is demonstrating utter contempt for our country’s system of checks and balances, not to mention the U.S. Constitution,” Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement. “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.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott accused Obama officials of “political theater” and intervening in the case solely to help Democratic candidates and hurt five Hispanic Republicans in the 2014 Texas elections for Legislature and Congress.

One conservative vote monitoring group based in Texas, True the Vote, immediately announced plans to fight Holder in court.

“We will meet Attorney General Holder in court and we will do whatever we need to do to advance the cause of voters’ rights for all Americans,” said the group’s president, Catherine Engelbrecht.

Fifty-three percent of Americans believe discrimination in voting remains a problem and should be addressed by Congress, while 37 percent do not, according to a McClatchy-Marist poll released Thursday. But only 28 percent say it should be an immediate priority for Obama and Congress.

The Supreme Court ruling in June prompted some states to immediately try to enact or enforce more restrictions on voting, including requiring additional identification to vote.

The Republican-led legislature in Texas passed a so-called voter ID law as well as a new map for congressional and legislative districts that a coalition of Democratic legislators and civil rights groups is opposing in court. Holder will join that case. No matter how the court rules, the case likely will be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Alaska is also in the middle of a redistricting battle and a voter ID bill is pending in the state Legislature.

Holder said Thursday that other provisions in the Voting Rights Act not impacted by the Supreme Court decision allow him to ask courts to provide a judge or the Justice Department with the authority to review changes in state voting laws.

The Voting Rights Act has always permitted such a maneuver, but the strategy rarely has been used, according to voting rights experts.

Guy-Uriel Charles, director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics at Duke University, said the Justice Department’s actions do not constitute an “end run” around the Supreme Court, because they invoke portions of the Voting Rights Act that were not struck down. But he said it will be difficult to win because the government must prove discrimination in laws that supporters say were enacted to prevent fraud but which, according to opponents, have the effect of suppressing turnout among minorities, the poor, the elderly and students.

“It may be the only move they have left,” Charles said, referring to the administration.

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, designated states and jurisdictions must secure federal approval before they change any voting practice or procedure.

A related provision of the law, Section 4, provides the formula for determining which political jurisdictions must meet the preclearance requirements. The justices struck down this section as unconstitutional.

Nine states were covered by the requirements: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Selected jurisdictions in an additional seven states also are covered, including parts of California, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York and South Dakota.

Holder said he has shifted resources to help enforce voting laws not affected by the Supreme Court’s decision. But he said he still wants Congress to restore, and even strengthen, voting protections.

“Let me be very clear: These remaining tools are no substitute for legislation that must fill the void left by the Supreme Court’s decision,” he said. “This issue transcends partisanship, and we must work together. We cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve.”

But a fix on Capitol Hill is a nearly impossible task for an increasingly divided, gridlocked Congress.

Daily News reporter Richard Mauer, and McClatchy reporters William Douglas and David Lightman contributed. 


By Anita Kumar
McClatchy Washington Bureau