Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. vowed Tuesday to fully enforce civil rights protections in next year’s elections amid a flurry of activity by states to redraw political boundaries and impose requirements that could reduce voting by minorities who enthusiastically supported Barack Obama in the 2008 election.
Giving his most expansive speech on civil rights since taking office, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer declared that “we need election systems that are free from fraud, discrimination and partisan influence - and that are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country.”
He urged the country to “call on our political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success.”
“Instead, encourage and work with the parties to achieve this success by appealing to more voters,” Mr. Holder said in remarks prepared for an appearance in Austin, Texas.
Currently, the Justice Department is reviewing new requirements in Texas and South Carolina requiring voters to produce a photo ID before casting ballots. The department also is examining changes that Florida has made to its electoral process, imposing financial penalties on third-party voter-registration organizations such as the League of Women Voters when they miss deadlines and shortening the number of days in the early-voting period before elections.
Most of the changes have been promoted and approved by Republicans, who argue they are needed to avert voter fraud. Democrats, citing studies suggesting there is little voter fraud, say the measures are actually aimed at reducing minority votes for their candidates.
Where a state can’t meet its legal burden in showing an absence of discriminatory impact, “we will object,” the attorney general said in his speech at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. As president in 1965, Johnson was instrumental in passing the landmark law the Justice Department now uses to ensure voting rights in Texas, South Carolina and all or parts of 14 other states. Most of the 16 states are in the South and all of them with a history of discrimination against blacks, American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives or Hispanics.
Besides Texas and South Carolina, Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Wisconsin have enacted more stringent voter-ID laws this year.
In Washington, Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, responded, saying voter-identification laws are constitutional.
“Facing an election challenge next year, this administration has chosen to target efforts by the states to protect the democratic process,” said Mr. Cornyn, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Holder said he supports Democrat-sponsored legislation that would require stiff criminal penalties for distributing false communications for elections.
Mr. Holder was appearing in a Republican-controlled state that has taken a redistricting dispute with civil rights groups all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.