Attorney General opens new battle over Voting Rights

In a surprise move, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a legal effort today that could force the state of Texas to again submit any election law changes to the federal government for pre-approval, as the Justice Department tries to move past a recent Supreme Court ruling that set aside such a regime for Texas and other states in the South.

“This is the Department’s first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last,” the Attorney General told a conference of the National Urban League in Philadelphia.

You can see the Department of Justice “statement of interest” filed in a Texas redistricting case here.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Justice Department would go to court to force other states to also get “pre-clearance” for election law changes.

Up until the recent Supreme Court decision, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississipi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia all had to submit any election law changes to the feds for approval.

Certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota also had to follow the same rules on pre-approval, covering everything from major efforts like Voter ID laws to simple changes in the location of polling places.

Here are the comments from Attorney General Holder:

 

I am announcing that the Justice Department will ask a federal court in Texas to subject the State of Texas to a preclearance regime similar to the one required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This request to “bail in” the state – and require it to obtain “pre-approval” from either the Department or a federal court before implementing future voting changes – is available under the Voting Rights Act when intentional voting discrimination is found. Based on the evidence of intentional racial discrimination that was presented last year in the redistricting case, Texas v. Holder – as well as the history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities that the Supreme Court itself has recognized – we believe that the State of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices.

This is the Department’s first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last. Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the Court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected. My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination wherever it is found. But let me be very clear: these remaining tools are no substitute for legislation that must fill the void left by the Supreme Court’s decision. This issue transcends partisanship, and we must work together. We cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve. And, in our broader efforts, we will continue to look far beyond America’s ballot boxes – to our schools, military bases, and border areas; our immigrant communities, our criminal justice system, and even our workplaces – in order to advance the fight for equality and against injustice.

 

Holder is trying to use the “bail-in” provision of Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, which allows the feds to force certain jurisdictions to submit their election law changes for pre-approval.

For those asking, “Didn’t the Supreme Court strike down pre-clearance specifically back in June?” – the Court did strike down the formula for determining which jurisdictions should have to submit their election law changes for approval by the feds – but not the process.

Many though argue – since Congress seems unlikely to re-write the formula – that it basically does get rid of the pre-clearance provisions.