Eric Holder gave an address at the LBJ Library in Austin yesterday billed as the opening salvo in a Justice Department counter-attack against disenfranchising voter laws, particularly in states which just turned over to conservative legislatures and governors. We saw legal action taken yesterday by the ACLU against Wisconsin’s voter ID law, so this speech definitely is part of a pattern rather than the lead action. But the speech, given at the library of the President who signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, was nonetheless significant.
Holder’s speech offered something of a warning to states considering new laws on voter suppression, that the Justice Department stands ready and eager to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Today, a growing number of our fellow citizens are worried about the same disparities, divisions, and problems that – nearly five decades ago – LBJ devoted his Presidency to addressing. In my travels across this country, I’ve heard a consistent drumbeat of concern from many Americans, who – often for the first time in their lives – now have reason to believe that we are failing to live up to one of our nation’s most noble, and essential, ideals.
As Congressman John Lewis described it, in a speech on the House floor this summer, the voting rights that he worked throughout his life – and nearly gave his life – to ensure are, “under attack… [by] a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, [and] minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.” Not only was he referring to the all-too-common deceptive practices we’ve been fighting for years. He was echoing more recent concerns about some of the state-level voting law changes we’ve seen this legislative season.
Since January, more than a dozen states have advanced new voting measures. Some of these new laws are currently under review by the Justice Department, based on our obligations under the Voting Rights Act. Texas and South Carolina, for example, have enacted laws establishing new photo identification requirements that we’re reviewing. We’re also examining a number of changes that Florida has made to its electoral process, including changes to the procedures governing third-party voter registration organizations, as well as changes to early voting procedures, including the number of days in the early voting period.
Although I cannot go into detail about the ongoing review of these and other state-law changes, I can assure you that it will be thorough – and fair. We will examine the facts, and we will apply the law. 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. 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.
Section 5 covers 16 states, mostly in the South, with a history of voter discrimination. It does not apply to, for example, Wisconsin. But preclearance has been challenged in a series of lawsuits, with conservatives in the affected states trying to get it thrown out as unconstitutional. Holder pointed to a number of incidents of voter disenfranchisement in these states, calling up discriminatory actions in Louisiana and Texas. He referenced the Texas redistricting maps, which the Justice Department found in violation of the VRA because it gave Hispanics no electoral opportunity, despite being the majority of population growth in the state. Those maps are under Supreme Court review.
Holder also proposed that the federal government register all citizens to vote automatically, which would significantly advance efforts to extend the franchise to all legal citizens.
One final area for reform that merits our strongest support is the growing effort – which is already underway in several states – to modernize voter registration. Today, the single biggest barrier to voting in this country is our antiquated registration system. According to the Census Bureau, of the 75 million adult citizens who failed to vote in the last presidential election, 60 million of them were not registered and, therefore, not eligible to cast a ballot.
All eligible citizens can and should be automatically registered to vote. The ability to vote is a right – it is not a privilege. Under our current system, many voters must follow cumbersome and needlessly complex voter registration rules. And every election season, state and local officials have to manually process a crush of new applications – most of them handwritten – leaving the system riddled with errors, and, too often, creating chaos at the polls.
Fortunately, modern technology provides a straightforward fix for these problems – if we have the political will to bring our election systems into the 21st century. It should be the government’s responsibility to automatically register citizens to vote, by compiling – from databases that already exist – a list of all eligible residents in each jurisdiction. Of course, these lists would be used solely to administer elections – and would protect essential privacy rights.
Holder wants to see the ability for people who move to take their voter registration with them in a seamless way. And, he wants to allow “every voter to cast a regular, non-provisional ballot on Election Day.”
Holder also announced his support for a bill, introduced by Chuck Schumer and Ben Cardin, to increase criminal penalties for voter intimidation and deception, such as putting flyers in a neighborhood about elections with the wrong date, or making phony robo-calls with bad information to voters.
Finally, Holder cast doubt on claims that voter fraud poisons elections, citing the low incidence, and the benefits to extending the franchise.
This is a strong series of statements by the Attorney General, and I hope they will get followed up with consistent actions on behalf of voting rights.