Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. sued Texas on Thursday, escalating the battle over voting rights and saying the Legislature was intentionally trying to discriminate against Hispanics when it redrew its congressional district maps and passed a voter-ID law.
Meanwhile, Arizona and Kansas are fighting the federal government on another front in the voting wars, suing the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to demand that anyone who registers to vote in those states be required to prove they are citizens.
"The thread that ties these two cases together is they both represent the federal government attempting to exercise unconstitutional control over the states' voting systems," said Kansas Secretary of State Kris W. Kobach, who is leading that state's lawsuit, filed Wednesday. "This is definitely a contest between the federal government and states over the states' sovereign authority to control their elections."
Voting rights shifted to the forefront after the Supreme Court in June struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, saying the federal government cannot rely on a decades-old formula to decide which states have to get federal "preclearance" for any voting changes.
That ruling enraged Mr. Holder and President Obama. A bipartisan coalition in Congress already had begun working on ways to rewrite the formula and restore teeth to the Voting Rights Act.
But Mr. Holder's moves this week could endanger that effort, said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, who led the latest reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006.
"The lawsuit would make it much more difficult to pass a bipartisan fix to restore the heart of the VRA that the Supreme Court struck down earlier this year," Mr. Sensenbrenner said.
He said he had spoken with Mr. Holder and asked him to withdraw the lawsuit.
Texas was one of the states subject to special scrutiny under the old formula that the Supreme Court struck down. Lower courts ruled against Texas' ID law and congressional maps, but the Supreme Court's decision overturned those rulings and freed Texas from federal control.
Mr. Holder said Thursday that he wants to regain that control.
"We will not allow the Supreme Court's recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights," Mr. Holder said.
He is asking a federal court in Texas to rule that the state is so discriminatory that it needs to be specifically added back under federal control for purposes of election laws.
In his lawsuit Mr. Holder said Texas Legislators used "anti-immigrant rhetoric" during the debate on the voter ID bill and that Gov. Rick Perry and the Republican leadership in the Legislature conspired to keep minority lawmakers from "effective participation" in the debates.
Mr. Holder said the ID law would make some residents travel 200 miles round-trip to obtain a driver's license or identification card to vote. Because state offices are closed on weekends, he said, many people would have to take a day off work, creating a hardship for poor and minority voters.
The moves drew a vociferous response from Texas Republican officials.
"Eric Holder is wrong to mess with Texas," said Attorney General Greg Abbott.
He said the Obama administration "just can't stand an independent Texas."
Mr. Abbott pointed to the Justice Department's move this week to arrest a woman in Texas whom it accused of illegally voting five times in a primary last year.
"Voter fraud is very real in the state of Texas," Mr. Abbott said.
He and other Texas Republicans said Mr. Holder's moves were more about politics than the law.
"Facts mean little to a politicized Justice Department bent on inserting itself into the sovereign affairs of Texas and a lame-duck administration trying to turn our state blue," said Sen. John Cornyn, who is the second-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate.
While the Texas ID law deals with fraud at the point where voters go to the polls, Kansas and Arizona are trying to defend their state laws that require proof of citizenship at the time of registration.
Both states demand that proof on their own forms, but under federal law, the Election Assistance Commission also is allowed to distribute registration forms, and the EAC has balked at adding the proof-of-citizenship requirement.
The Supreme Court ruled this year that Arizona could not reject those EAC applications but said states can ask the EAC to include citizenship on the forms it distributes in that state.
The commission has declined requests from Arizona and Kansas, which are now suing to force action.
"Congress does not have the power to tell a state it cannot require proof of citizenship, and certainly a commission created by Congress does not have that authority," Mr. Kobach told The Washington Times.
The EAC declined to comment.
Arizona and Kansas are among a handful of states that do require proof of citizenship.
Some of the plaintiffs who took Arizona to the Supreme Court over the citizenship requirement said they were disappointed that the state is still fighting them.
"Clearly, these politicians and their supporters fear an increase in the number of eligible citizens voting," said state Sen. Steve Gallardo.
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