WASHINGTON – The Obama administration opened an aggressive new front in the battle over voter protection Thursday, singling out Texas for legal action and promising broader efforts to come after last month’s Supreme Court ruling that wiped out a major provision of the Voting Rights Act.
It was the administration’s first legal response to counter the justices’ 5-4 decision, but Attorney General Eric Holder pledged that “it will not be our last.”
In a speech to the National Urban League in Philadelphia, Holder called the Voting Rights Act “the cornerstone of modern civil rights law” and said “we cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve.”
TEXAS REPUBLICANS OBJECT
Texas Republicans suggested the administration effort was more about politics. “This decision has nothing to do with protecting voting rights and everything to do with advancing a partisan political agenda,” Sen. John Cornyn said.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the Obama administration seemed to be “sowing racial divide” and accused the administration of joining Texas Democrats with an eye on the 2014 elections. Abbott is running for governor.
The Supreme Court, on June 25, threw out the most powerful part of the Voting Rights Act, whose enactment in 1965 marked a major turning point in black Americans’ struggle for equal rights and political power.
Holder said the first Justice Department move would be to ask a federal court in San Antonio to require advance approval for voting changes in Texas, a state riven with political battles, from redistricting to voter ID requirements.
The Justice Department is asking that a preapproval requirement in Texas apply for 10 years and “beyond 10 years in the event of further discriminatory acts,” the department said in a court filing in San Antonio.
The separate provision of the Voting Rights Act that Holder is invoking may be a difficult tool for the Obama administration to use.
A handful of jurisdictions have been subjected to advance approval of election changes through the Civil Rights Act provision it is relying on, but a court first must find that a state or local government engaged in intentional discrimination under the Constitution’s 14th or 15th amendments, or the jurisdiction has to admit to discrimination. Unlike in other parts of the voting law, the discriminatory effect of an action is not enough to trigger the so-called bail-in provision.
NORTH CAROLINA MAY BE NEXT
In the Texas case, the department is not directly intervening but is filing what’s known as a statement of interest in support of private groups that have filed suit.
“The fact that intervention in Texas is the Department of Justice’s first action to protect voting rights” since the Supreme Court decision “speaks volumes about the seriousness of Texas’ actions,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat from San Antonio and chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which is a plaintiff in the San Antonio case.
North Carolina may become another target for the administration’s initiative. On Wednesday, the Republican-dominated North Carolina Senate gave preliminary approval to sweeping election law changes, including a requirement that voters present photo identification at the polls and a shortening of early voting by a week.
In Texas, Holder said, there is a history of “pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities.”