President Obama told a gathering of civil rights leaders at the White House on Monday that his administration is committed to restoring legal protections for minority voting, and a Florida legislator who attended the meeting said his colleagues are motivated by the knowledge that slain black Florida teen Trayvon Martin would have been eligible to vote next year.
The president and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. assured the group that they will work on a legislative response to the Supreme Court’s decision in June that struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, a key section that the administration said was needed to combat discrimination in targeted states and districts. That provision required states with a history of voting discrimination to submit any changes on election law to the Justice Department for approval.
“There is a wound in the Voting Rights Act, but it is far from dead,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, an MSNBC commentator who attended the meeting in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. It was closed to the media.
As part of the response to the court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, Mr. Sharpton said an emerging coalition of advocacy groups will be used as “resources” to report any voting-rights violations directly to the Justice Department.
Florida state Rep. Alan B. Williams, Tallahassee Democrat, emerged from the White House meeting and said part of their effort will be to fight Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s move to “purge” lists of voters deemed ineligible.
Mr. Williams said he and his colleagues are motivated by the memory of Trayvon, the 17-year-old who was fatally shot last year. The man who killed him, George Zimmerman, was found not guilty of murder this month after his defense attorneys said he acted in self-defense.
“One thing that’s not lost upon many of us down there, post the Shelby decision but also post the Zimmerman verdict, we know that next year would have been the first year that Trayvon Martin would have had an opportunity to vote,” Mr. Williams said. “And we know that it’s very sacred, and it’s not lost on us. We want to make sure that everyone has that opportunity.”
Those who attended the White House session said the president and Mr. Holder have not settled on a specific legislative strategy. Mr. Holder announced last week that Justice Department will take on Texas in the first major voting rights enforcement action since the court’s decision, relying on another section of the Voting Rights Act that was not affected by the Supreme Court ruling.
Texas state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, San Antonio Democrat, said he believes after attending the meeting that Texas will become “ground zero” for the federal government’s efforts to respond to the Supreme Court ruling.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other Lone Star Republicans have reacted angrily to Mr. Holder’s new legal challenge. Mr. Perry last week condemned what he called an “end-run around the Supreme Court” by the Obama administration that demonstrates “utter contempt for our country’s system of checks and balances, not to mention the U.S. Constitution.”
Others who attended Monday’s White House meeting included Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, who ran the civil rights division at the Department of Justice in Mr. Obama’s first term; Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; National Urban League President Marc H. Morial; Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed; and Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office.
Mr. Obama told the group that he is eagerly awaiting a report by a commission on voting rights that he appointed earlier this year to study the problem of long voting lines around the nation, saying it should bolster the coalition’s efforts, according to those who attended the meeting.
Mr. Sharpton said the coalition will launch “a huge voter mobilization and voter registration drive” on Aug. 24 during a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington.
Mr. Reed said the president’s commitment to protecting voters’ access to the polls “is total, it is whole, and it is absolute.”
“That’s really what the conversation centered around,” he said.
He added that groups such as the NAACP will partner with mayors across the U.S. because “more resources are going to be required to set the record for the kind of discrimination that we believe is afoot in the United States of America. We cannot rely on these organizations to respond without being well-sourced.”