Eric Holder wades into debate over voting rights as presidential election nears

YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will wade into voting rights debate.

The Obama administration on Tuesday will wade into the increasingly divisive national debate over new voting laws in several states that could depress turnout among minorities and others who helped elect the president in 2008.

A dozen states this year tightened rules requiring voters to present state-issued photo identification at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Although Democratic governors vetoed four of the measures, liberal and civil rights groups have been raising alarms about the remaining laws, calling them an “assault on democracy” and an attempt to depress minority voter turnout.

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Supporters of the tighter laws say they are needed to combat voter fraud.

With the presidential campaign heating up, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. will deliver a speech Tuesday expressing concerns about the voter-identification laws, along with a Texas redistricting plan before the Supreme Court that fails to take into account the state’s burgeoning Hispanic population, he said in an interview Monday.

Holder will speak at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Libary and Museum in Austin, Tex., which honors the president who shepherded the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law.

“We are a better nation now than we were because more people are involved in the electoral process,’’ Holder said in the interview. “The beauty of this nation, the strength of this nation, is its diversity, and when we try to exclude people from being involved in the process . . . we weaken the fabric of this country.’’

Some of the measures, most of which were enacted by Republican legislatures, also impose restrictions on early voting and make it harder for former felons to vote. Florida and Ohio, for example — both key battlegrounds — would cut nearly in half the number of days for early voting.

The speech comes as debate is intensifying over whether the primary impact of the new laws will be to keep eligible voters away from the polls in the November 2012 election or deter election fraud.

One study estimated that the changes could affect more than 5 million voters overall, potentially keeping them away from the polls in states that also include Wisconsin, Kansas and South Carolina.

When it comes to voting fraud, some conservatives have long argued that it is a serious problem, although others say the number of such cases is relatively low. Studies of the issue have reached different conclusions on the extent of the problem.

“You constantly hear about voter fraud . . . but you don’t see huge amounts of vote fraud out there,’’ Holder said.

The voter-identification measures are popular, according to some surveys. Mississippi voters last month easily approved an initiative requiring a government-issued photo ID at the polls.

Groups on the right and left are closely monitoring the Justice Department’s approach to the new laws, along with the redistricting plans enacted in Texas and every state as a result of the 2010 census. Several of the states that enacted voter-identification laws are required under the Voting Rights Act to receive federal “pre-clearance” of any electoral changes to ensure that the changes don’t affect minority political power.

Jon Sherman, a staff attorney for the ACLU Voting Rights Project, said the Justice Department could reject some laws through the pre-clearance process and file lawsuits seeking to stop others from taking effect. “We want the deparment to enforce the Voting Rights Act, not just pay lip service to it,’’ he said.

Hans von Spakovsky, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Monday that Holder’s stance is driven by “ideology and politics.’’ He noted that courts have found laws requiring voter identification in Georgia and Indiana to be nondiscriminatory. “Georgia’s law has been in place for five years . . . and not only did the turnout for African Americans not go down, it went up,’’ said von Spakovsky, a Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration.

Holder said the laws could depress turnout for minorities, poor and elderly people and those with disabilities who would have difficulty securing valid identification documents. He rejected any notion of politics influencing Justice’s decisions on the new laws.

“We’re doing this in a very fair, apolitical way,’’ he said. “We don’t want anybody to think that there is a partisan component to anything we are doing.’’

Still, as he flew to Texas, Holder also faced pressure from the left. The AFL-CIO, the Advancement Project and other civil rights groups last week delivered a petition to his office demanding that he oppose the new voting laws.

And the NAACP protested Saturday at the offices of conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch, who have aided a group that supports the state laws.

 
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