Despite growing furor over state laws to restrict voting around the country — legislation that sets severe barriers to voter-registration drives, dramatic cuts to early voting and the permanent disenfranchisement of ex-felons, among other tactics — the Department of Justice hasn't exactly staked a claim.
For months, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez has insisted that the department is reviewing these laws under both Section 5 and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibit discriminatory voting changes or procedures. But even as various reports have shown a disparate impact on voters of color (in Florida, for example, a new law cracks down on voter-registration drives — which 20 percent of African Americans in the state used to register in 2008, compared with just 6 percent of whites), the Justice Department has yet to make a move or even a definitive statement.
The relative silence on the matter may come to an end on Tuesday evening, in a much-anticipated speech by Attorney General Eric Holder. The nation's top cop will speak at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library & Museum in Austin, Texas, about, according to the library, "the importance of ensuring equal access to the ballot box and strengthening America's long tradition of expanding the franchise."
The location for the speech is particularly meaningful, since Texas passed laws this year placing new restrictions on voter-registration drives and mandating one of four forms of government-issued identification in order to vote (allowing a concealed-handgun license as acceptable identification at the polls, but not an ID from a state university). The Johnson Library setting is also noteworthy because President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
So what will come from this speech exactly — and why has it taken so long for the attorney general to speak up? The Root spoke with some of the nation's leading litigators and activists around voting rights for a preview of what's to come.
What will Attorney General Holder say about restrictive voting laws?
"I think he will lay out how the Voting Rights Act is important in this moment in history when we're seeing this rash of voter-suppression laws sprouting throughout the country. When Holder took the position of attorney general, he said that the Civil Rights Division is back open for business, and this will be his opportunity to let Americans know what he meant by that. I'm betting we won't get any specifics [with regard to litigation], but it will be a reaffirming of the Justice Department's commitment to the Voting Rights Act."
—Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of Advancement Project
What can the Justice Department actually do about voter-ID laws?
"Most people assume that the Justice Department can tell any state what to do about anything, and that's simply not true. With the exception of those states covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, states have control over the time, place and manner in which elections are carried out. Even under Section 2, you're still working with a set of limitations. Unless you can establish that these provisions disenfranchise an entire group of people, there's little you can do.
"We've had a series of meetings with the Justice Department during their review process, and we are convinced that they're doing what they can in light of the restrictions. They can utilize Section 5 in many of those jurisdictions [and object to the laws]. They can establish a stringent monitoring of everything that happens in states that pass these restrictive and disenfranchising policies — watching very closely how election officials implement these plans, and put observers on the ground in all the places where they're unable to overturn these provisions."
—Hilary O. Shelton, NAACP Washington director and senior vice president for advocacy
Why is the Justice Department taking so long to respond to these laws?
"The Department of Justice has to review these laws and look for whether or not there's disproportionate impact on minority voters. They must have the evidence that this is true, evidence that comes from the states — and the states have not met their own burden of showing that the laws are not discriminatory.
"Texas, for example, sent information to the Department of Justice that didn't involve race data. The Department of Justice had to go back to Texas and say, 'Where's the beef?' It's important that they're asking the right questions, and being thorough to get enough information. We believe that under the Voting Rights Act, DOJ will see the evidence showing that the impact is disproportionate on voters of color, and that they'll step up and reject the laws."
—Judith Browne Dianis, Advancement Project
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.