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Holder vows 'aggressive' challenge to voter ID laws

Last modified: 7/11/2012 12:00:00 AM
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday day vowed to be "aggressive" in challenging voting laws that restrict minority rights, using a speech in Texas to make his case on the same day a federal court was considering the legality of the state's new voter ID legislation.

"Let me be clear: We will not allow political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens of their most precious rights," Holder said in the speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "I can assure you that the Justice Department's efforts to uphold and enforce voting rights will remain aggressive."

Holder received a standing ovation as the Houston crowd chanted "Stand your ground!" and "Holder, Holder!" But the attorney general's remarks drew sharp criticism from Republican lawmakers, who characterized the speech as a political tactic aimed at bolstering President Obama's re-election prospects.

"It's very telling that instead of making legal arguments in front of the court, the attorney general is making political speeches more than a thousand miles way," said Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

The controversy over voting rights is playing out against the backdrop of a growing national debate over the issue. A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Washington is hearing arguments this week on the state's voter ID law, which requires voters to show a photo ID before being allowed to cast their ballots.

The Justice Department in March blocked the Texas law, which was signed by Perry in May 2011, contending that it would violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act and disproportionately harm Hispanic voters.

"Many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them," Holder said yesterday at the 103rd convention of the NAACP.

He called the laws "poll taxes," referring to fees in some states in the South that were used to disenfranchise blacks during the Jim Crow era.

Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department has challenged new voter laws across the country, including in December in South Carolina, where the administration argued that a voter identification law would adversely affect black voters.

Since both Texas and South Carolina have a history of voter discrimination, they must get "preclearance" from the Justice Department before any new election laws can take effect.

In all, however, eight states passed voter ID laws last year, including the battleground states of Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Supporters of the measures say they are needed to combat voter fraud. But critics say the new statutes could hurt turnout among minority voters and others, many of whom helped elect Obama in 2008.

In his speech, Holder told the NAACP that the arc of American history has always moved toward expanding the electorate and that "we will simply not allow this era to be the beginning of the reversal of that historic progress."

The NAACP has launched a campaign against the voter ID laws, and its president, Benjamin Todd Jealous, has compared the fight to the one waged during "Selma and Montgomery times."


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