It's no coincidence that Attorney General Eric Holder chose the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, as the site of a forceful speech against voter suppression. He referenced the location's significance right at the top.
"In 1965, when President Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act into law, he proclaimed that 'the right to vote is the basic right, without which all others are meaningless,' " Holder said on Tuesday night. "Today, as attorney general, I have the privilege — and the solemn duty — of enforcing this law, and the other civil rights reforms that President Johnson championed. This work is among the Justice Department's most important priorities."
On that note, he first dove into widespread concern over measures passed by numerous Republican state legislatures that restrict voter-registration drives, require birth certificates to register to vote, cut early voting and mandate specific government-approved ID before voters can cast their ballots. In his travels across the country this year, Holder recounted, he has repeatedly heard from Americans who view this spate of new laws as a deliberate attempt to make it harder for people to cast their ballots in 2012, with voters who are low-income, students, elderly or racial minorities most affected.
Holder confirmed that his Justice Department has been reviewing this legislation in multiple states and jurisdictions that are subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal preclearance to any voting changes. Though he declined to give details of the ongoing investigations, he assured that they would be thorough and fair.
"If a state passes a new voting law and meets its burden of showing that the law is not discriminatory, we will follow the law and approve the change," he said. "And where a state can't meet this burden, we will object as part of our obligation under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act."
Acknowledging that Section 5 itself is being challenged in several jurisdictions on the grounds that it's no longer necessary, Holder countered that although he "wish[es] this were the case," keeping an eye on voting procedures is as crucial as ever.
"For example, in October the Justice Department objected to a redistricting plan in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, where the map drawer began the process by meeting exclusively with white officeholders — and never consulted black officeholders," he explained. "The result was a map that diminished the electoral opportunity of African Americans. After the Justice Department objected, the parish enacted a new, nondiscriminatory map."
Looking Beyond the New State Laws
Yet Holder stressed that protecting the vote can't fall on the Justice Department alone, explaining that citizens must also push back against unscrupulous practices in their communities.
"Just last week, the campaign manager of a Maryland gubernatorial candidate was convicted on election-fraud charges for approving anonymous ‘robocalls' that went out on Election Day last year to more than 100,000 voters in the state's two largest majority-black jurisdictions," he said by way of example. "These calls encouraged voters to stay home — telling them to ‘relax' because their preferred candidate had already wrapped up a victory."
To crack down on such practices, Holder announced that Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) will re-introduce legislation — originally launched by Barack Obama during his first year in the U.S. Senate — to establish criminal penalties for individuals and organizations that engage in them.
Holder also encouraged citizens to fight against politically driven redistricting decisions that undercut the representation of constituents, and to support state efforts to modernize the voter-registration system based on regularly updated electronic databases.
"All eligible citizens can and should be automatically registered to vote," he said of modernizing the process. "Under our current system, many voters must follow cumbersome and needlessly complex voter-registration rules. And every election season, state and local officials have to manually process a crush of new applications — most of them handwritten — leaving the system riddled with errors and, too often, creating chaos at the polls."
Re-emphasizing that voting rights cannot be taken for granted today any more than in 1965, the Attorney General issued a call for Americans to speak out against suppression efforts and urge policymakers to find ways to encourage, not limit, voting participation.
"Too many recent actions have the potential to reverse the progress that defines us — and has made this nation exceptional, as well as an example for all the world," he said. "We must be true to the arc of America's history, which compels us to be more inclusive with regard to the franchise."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.