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Holder defends voting rights

For months, the Justice Department has largely been silent as Republican-dominated legislatures in state after state made it more difficult for minorities, poor people, and other Democratic-leaning groups to vote. This week, however, Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., spoke out forcefully and vowed to use the full weight of his department to ensure that new electoral laws are not discriminatory. To live up to that vow, he will have his hands full.

Republican lawmakers in more than a dozen states recently have enacted laws designed to limit Americans' access to the polls, often concentrating on voters -- blacks, Hispanics, students, and the poor -- who showed up in large numbers in 2008 to elect Barack Obama. They have imposed strict voter-identification requirements, knowing that millions of people cannot easily meet them; eliminated early voting periods, and restricted registration drives. Voter ID laws have been introduced in at least 34 states.

These efforts, Mr. Holder said, have led many Americans "to believe that we are failing to live up to one of our nation's most noble, and essential, ideals." Quoting John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who was beaten in the 1960s while advocating voting rights for blacks, Mr. Holder said those rights are under attack by "a deliberate and systematic attempt" to prevent millions of voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in democracy.

It was very encouraging to hear Mr. Holder recognize the depth of the assault on a fundamental constitutional right. The question is how far he will use his department's power to stop it. On that subject, he was a little vague, promising to use his power under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to object to any law that is discriminatory, citing new laws in Texas, South Carolina, and Florida.

That section, however, only applies to 16 states that have a well-documented history of voter discrimination, mostly in the South. The new Republican effort is far broader than that group of states, and may require the Justice Department to use other tools to fight it. Though Mr. Holder did not mention it, Section 2 of the act allows the government to take legal action anywhere against measures that are intentionally discriminatory on the basis of race or that have a clear racially disparate impact. The Justice Department can also intervene in private lawsuits that allege violations of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, such as the one filed this week by the American Civil Liberties Union against Wisconsin.

Those cases are more difficult to make, particularly given the 2008 Supreme Court decision upholding Indiana's voter ID law, but Mr. Holder at least suggested that his department would now actively be looking for patterns of discrimination in the new laws. As he noted, race continues to preoccupy many state officials.

The Justice Department recently had to object to a redistricting plan in an eastern Louisiana parish that was based on a meeting that excluded black officeholders. It also intervened against the Republican redistricting plan in Texas, which created no new Hispanic districts despite a huge influx of new Hispanic residents. That case is going to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Holder effectively demolished the phony voter-fraud excuse used by Republicans supporting these laws, pointing that such fraud happens far too infrequently to justify this kind of discrimination. And he called on citizens of every state to demand a voter registration system that is not cumbersome, allowing anyone eligible to exercise what President Lyndon Johnson called "the basic right, without which all others are meaningless."

His department faces a concerted opposition of political opportunists who believe making it easy to vote does harm to their interests. Mr. Holder's speech was a strong first step, as long as it is backed up by the full power of the law.

-- New York Times

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