Justice Department to challenge states’ voting laws
By Sari Horwitz,
The Justice Department is preparing to take fresh legal action in a string of voting rights cases across the nation, U.S. officials said, part of a new attempt to blunt the effect of a Supreme Court ruling that the Obama administration has warned will imperil minority representation.
The decision to challenge state officials marks an aggressive effort to continue policing voting issues and is likely to spark a new round of politically contentious litigation that could return consideration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to the high court.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s decision Thursday to intervene in a Texas redistricting case follows a ruling by the court last month that invalidated a critical section of the historic legislation. The justices threw out the part of the Voting Rights Act that determined which states with a history of discrimination had to be granted Justice Department or court approval before changing their voting laws.
Holder’s action was praised by civil rights groups but criticized by Republicans on Capitol Hill and in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry said it demonstrated the Obama administration’s “utter contempt” for 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 in a statement.
The Justice Department’s intervention in Texas will focus on those sections of the Voting Rights Act that were untouched by the Supreme Court’s ruling last month in Shelby County v. Holder, a case out of Alabama, election-law experts said.
“This is a big deal,” said Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine. “It shows that the Department of Justice is going to use whatever tools it has remaining in its arsenal to protect minority voting rights. But the issue could well end up back before the Supreme Court, perhaps even this coming term.”
In the next few weeks, Holder is expected to use Sections 2 and 3 of the Voting Rights Act to prevent states from implementing certain laws, including requirements to present particular types of identification to vote. As with Texas, the department also is expected to try to force certain states to get approval, or “pre-clearance,” before they can change their election laws.
“Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the Court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to ensure the voting rights of all American citizens are protected,” Holder said in a speech Thursday at the National Urban League conference in Philadelphia. “My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination wherever it is found.”
Holder announced that the department will support a lawsuit in Texas that was brought by a coalition of Democratic legislators and civil rights groups against the state’s redistricting plan. Holder is asking the court to require Texas to submit all voting law changes to the Justice Department for approval for a 10-year period because of its history of discrimination.
The department may also soon sue Texas over its voter-ID law, as well as North Carolina if that state passes a new measure.
“Texans should not — and will not — stand for the continued bullying of our state by the Obama administration,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said in a statement.
The administration had opposed the Texas voter-ID law that Perry signed in 2011, saying it endangered minority voting rights. Texas was one of eight states that passed voter-ID laws in 2011.
Supporters of the measures, which were signed by seven Republican governors and one independent, said that requiring voters to show specific photo IDs would prevent fraud. But critics of the laws said they could hurt turnout among minorities and others.
Because of Texas’s history of discrimination, the Justice Department had to clear the voter-ID law. The department blocked it, saying it would endanger minority voting rights. Texas sued the department, leading to a week-long trial last summer.
In August, the U.S. District Court in Washington blocked the law from taking effect, ruling that the legislation would impose “strict, unforgiving burdens” on poor minority voters.
Hours after last month’s Supreme Court ruling on voting rights, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the state would move forward with its voter-ID law and would carry out redistricting changes that had been mired in court battles.
Holder said that is exactly why the Justice Department is proceeding with its new voting rights strategy.
“Last month, the United States Supreme Court issued a deeply disappointing — and flawed — decision that struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the cornerstone of modern civil rights law,” Holder said in Philadelphia.
The court did not strike down the law itself or the provision that calls for special scrutiny of states with a history of discrimination. But it said that Congress must come up with a new formula based on current data to determine which states should be subject to the requirements.
Texas is the largest state that was covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal approval of any voting changes. The measure also covers Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia and parts of seven other states, including North Carolina.
Proponents of the law said it would be nearly impossible for a Congress bitterly divided along partisan lines to agree on a new formula to decide which states must bring any changes in their voting laws to the Justice Department or federal judges for approval.
In the Texas redistricting case, a three-judge federal panel in Washington last year blocked the plan under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, saying the new boundaries in the maps — which were drawn by the GOP legislature — undermined the political clout of minorities who are responsible for the state’s population growth.
Another lawsuit over the same maps was filed in U.S. District Court in San Antonio. In that case, several groups, including the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC) and the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force, sued Texas and Perry.
Thursday’s filing invokes Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act and asks a federal judge to require Texas to submit all changes in voting laws to the attorney general or a court for approval.
“The fact that intervention in Texas is the Department of Justice’s first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision speaks volumes about the seriousness of Texas’s actions,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, the chairman of MALC.