Justice Department backs challenges to voting laws in Ohio and Wisconsin


The Obama administration is supporting legal challenges to voting laws in Ohio and Wisconsin. (Michael Nelson/European Pressphoto Agency)

The Justice Department on Wednesday supported legal challenges to voting laws in Ohio and Wisconsin as part of the Obama administration’s ongoing effort to challenge state legislation it believes unfairly affects the ability of minority voters to cast ballots.

In Wisconsin, the department filed an amicus brief supporting a ruling by a federal judge that struck down a law that requires voters to show photo identification at the polls. In Ohio, Justice officials filed a “statement of interest” in a challenge by a civil rights group to a state law curtailing early voting and same-day registration.

“These filings are necessary to confront the pernicious measures in Wisconsin and Ohio that would impose significant barriers to the most basic right of our democracy,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement. “These two states’ voting laws represent the latest, misguided attempts to fix a system that isn’t broken. These restrictive state laws threaten access to the ballot box.”

In a 37-page amicus brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, department lawyers argue that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin ruled correctly when it found that Wisconsin’s voter ID law imposed unjustified burdens on a significant number of voters and had a discriminatory effect on African American and Hispanic voters.

In the 23-page statement of interest filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, the Justice Department argued that the Voting Rights Act prohibits Ohio from imposing any qualification on voters.

“This office remains committed to preserving the rights of every Ohio voter,” said Steven M. Dettelbach, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.

The Justice Department did not bring a lawsuit against Wisconsin or Ohio, as it did last year in two southern states, Texas and North Carolina. Those lawsuits were an effort to counter a ruling by the Supreme Court that invalidated a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The act had forced certain jurisdictions to receive approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before making any changes to their voting laws.

Since the Supreme Court decision, the Justice Department has been using Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to challenge voting laws. Section 2 prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or minority language group.

Last year, the department used the section to file two lawsuits in Texas to stop a newly enacted voter ID law and to obtain a ruling that Texas engaged in intentional discrimination in its 2011 redistricting plan. In North Carolina, the department sued to try to stop provisions that imposed strict voter ID requirements, restricted early voting and eliminated same-day registration. The litigation in the cases is ongoing.

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years.

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