A top Justice Department official on Wednesday told Congress that voting discrimination is “alive and well” while calling for a revitalization of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the civil rights era law that helped secure voting rights for millions facing discriminatory obstacles.
Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that voting discrimination based on race is happening throughout the nation.
“While there has been progress, we know that voting discrimination remains alive and well,” she said. “What the Justice Department has observed is that voting discrimination is widespread, it is a current-day problem across our country in Texas and in many other parts of the country.”
Ms. Clarke said the Justice Department‘s yearslong battle against the Texas voter-ID law demonstrates the need to restore the department’s “pre-clearance” authority to review proposed voting changes in certain states with a history of racial discrimination before they become law.
The Texas law requires voters to show a photo ID, such as a driver’s license or gun permit, before casting a ballot — which proponents say is necessary to deter voter fraud.
The Justice Department, however, has argued the law’s real purpose was to discourage minority voters, specifically Hispanics, because they are less likely to have the necessary ID.
Ms. Clarke said the proposed John R. Lewis Voting Right Advancement Act would restore the department’s pre-clearance ability, which “blocks these discriminatory laws from ever taking root in our electoral process.”
“The Justice Department is here to make the case for restoring the pre-clearance provision so that we can ensure that elections are free, open and fair across our country,” she said.
Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, asked during the hearing “what, exactly, is racist” about requiring a photo identification “when participating in the precious sacred constitutionally protected process of voting?”
The assistant attorney general said “we won’t know that until we actually look at the facts, we look at the particular law at issue, and we look at where is it being applied and are there racial disparities in terms of who has access to example to the limited forms of ID that might be called for by a law.”
Mr. Lee pointed to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which found part of the 1965 law was outdated and no longer relevant, including a section governing which states were discriminating against voters and the pre-clearance formula for deciding if voting law changes in those states must be subject to federal review. The high court, he said, specifically wrote that “the federal government does not have a general right to review and veto state enactments, before they go into effect.”
“We’ve got to be very careful that we don’t neglect this principle of federalism in our lawmaking processes and we can’t do this here — we can’t sacrifice this principle,” Mr. Lee said.
Sen. Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat, asked about “safeguards” in the proposed voting rights reform bill for states “to assert their rights and defend their procedures.”
“It contains a bailout provision that would allow jurisdictions with a clean bill of health a way to exempt themselves from the pre-clearance obligation [and] judicial review is available to jurisdictions that want to bypass the Justice Department and instead proceed to court,” Ms. Clarke said.