Attorney General Takes on Voter-ID Laws

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

(The Root) — When speaking about the Justice Department's work on voting rights and voter protection, Attorney General Eric Holder has tended to be short on details. Over the past year he has repeatedly maintained that the federal agency is reviewing voting changes that have been proposed state by state around the country — including proof-of-citizenship stipulations to register, photo-identification requirements to vote, redistricting plans, sharp limitations on third-party registration drives and curbs to early voting — and that said investigations will be careful, thorough and fair. After stating that investigators are determining whether or not such laws have a discriminatory effect, he usually leaves it at that.


His approach at the NAACP Annual Convention in Houston on Tuesday was noticeably more direct. Maybe enough research has been conducted for him to stake a stronger claim on the matter. Maybe he's feeling more assertive in the face of the House Republican-led contempt vote, moments after which he vowed: "Whatever the path that this matter will now follow, it will not distract me or the men and women of the Department of Justice from the important tasks that are our responsibility. A great deal of work for the American people remains to be done — I'm getting back to it."

On Tuesday Holder commented on Texas' new voter-ID law, which is currently on trial in federal district court, as part of that work. While the state claims that the law prevents voter fraud, the Justice Department argues that it automatically curbs the turnout of legally registered voters, especially minority voters, and thus violates Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

"Under the proposed law, concealed-handgun licenses would be acceptable forms of photo ID — but student IDs would not. 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 of the Justice Department's findings on the Texas law in particular, before moving on to the disparate impact of similar legislation being pushed around the country.

"According to some recent studies, nationally, only 8 percent of white voting age citizens, while 25 percent of African-American voting-age citizens, lack a government-issued photo ID," said Holder. "In our efforts to protect voting rights and to prevent voting fraud, we will be vigilant and strong. But let me be clear: We will not allow political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens of their most precious right."

As the Texas case continues through the rest of this week, Holder conceded that he can't predict what will happen. "But I can assure you that the Justice Department's efforts to uphold and enforce voting rights will remain aggressive," he said. "The arc of American history has always moved toward expanding the electorate. It is what has made this nation exceptional. We will simply not allow this era to be the beginning of the reversal of that historic progress."

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.

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