Holder received a standing ovation as the Houston crowd chanted “Stand your ground!” and “Holder, Holder!” But the attorney general’s remarks drew sharp criticism from Republican lawmakers, who characterized the speech as a political tactic aimed at bolstering President Obama’s reelection prospects.
“It’s very telling that instead of making legal arguments in front of the court, the attorney general is making political speeches more than a thousand miles way,” said Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R).
The controversy over voting rights is playing out against the backdrop of a growing national debate over the issue. A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Washington is hearing arguments this week on the Texas’s voter ID law, which requires voters to show a photo ID before being allowed to cast their ballots.
The Justice Department in March blocked the Texas law, which was signed by Perry in May 2011, contending that it would violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act and disproportionately harm Hispanic voters.
“Many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them,” Holder said Tuesday at the 103rd convention of the NAACP. He called the laws “poll taxes,” referring to fees in some states in the South that were used to disenfranchise blacks during the Jim Crow era. Under the Texas law, the minimum cost to obtain a voter ID for a Texas resident without a copy of his birth certificate would be $22, according to the Justice Department. The Texas legislature voted down a proposal to allow people to get the documents needed for a voter ID for free.
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department has challenged new voter laws across the country, including in December in South Carolina, where the administration argued that a voter identification law would adversely affect black voters. Because Texas and South Carolina have a history of voter discrimination, they must get “pre-clearance” from the Justice Department before any new election laws can take effect.
In all, however, eight states passed voter ID laws last year, including the battleground state of Pennsylvania. Supporters of the measures — seven of which were signed by Republican governors and one by an independent — say they are needed to combat voter fraud. But critics say the new statutes could hurt turnout among minority voters and others, many of whom helped elect Obama in 2008.