AG Holder Defends Constitutionality of Voting Rights Act; Calls for Overhaul of Voter Registration System

December 12, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

In a robust defense of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder blasted the claim that the law’s integral enforcement provision is outdated and said it was time the nation updated the way voters are registered.

Speaking at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Holder said, “President Kennedy recognized that no force in our history has been more powerful than the continued expansion of what’s been called the lifeblood of our representative democracy, the cornerstone of our system of government, and the ‘most basic’ right of American citizenship: the right to vote.”

That basic right has been under attack on several fronts. First Sec. 5 of the Voting Rights Act continues to be challenged as unconstitutional by some lawmakers in the South who argue that discrimination against minorities is a thing of the past and therefore they should not be required to get federal preclearance for changes to their voting procedures. The Supreme Court will review a challenge to Sec. 5 brought by Shelby County, Ala. officials who are seeking the demise of Sec. 5.

Sec. 5 of the Voting Rights Act, has, Holder noted, enjoyed “broad, bipartisan support – including, most recently, in 2006, when an overwhelming congressional majority joined with President Bush to reauthorize its protections. It’s also been upheld as constitution in each of the eight court challenges that the law’s opponents filed between 1965 and 2010 – during the first 45 years after it took effect. Over the last two years alone, however, we’ve seen at least 10 lawsuits – more than in the first four decades of the statute’s existence – arguing that Section 5 is no longer constitutional, and that our nation has moved far beyond the challenges that prompted both its passage and its recent renewal.”

But the reality, Holder continued, is that “even today, too many citizens have reason to fear that their right to vote, their access to the ballot – and their ability to have their votes counted – is under threat. In too many places, troubling divisions and disparities remain. And, despite the remarkable, once-unimaginable progress that we’ve seen over the last half century – indeed, over the last four years – Section 5 remains an indispensable tool for eradicating racial discrimination.”

Work by the Brennan Center and an ACS Issue Brief by Loyola law school professor Justin Levitt reveal the major impact of the restrictive voter ID laws fall disproportionately on minorities. And as Holder noted in his Dec. 11 speech a federal court in Florida also found that the state’s voting overhaul law, which sought to restrict voter registration drives and early voting periods, “could disproportionately impact African-American voters in the state.”

“The nation has come too far,” Holder continued, “and its people – from all races, religions, creeds, sexual orientations, backgrounds, and walks of life – have sacrificed too much not to finish the task of ensuring equal voting rights of all Americans. That is why so many agree – as illustrated over the past few years – that Section 5 remains essential to safeguarding the voting rights of millions across the country.”

Holder also said it was time for the country “to confront the single largest barrier that American voters currently face: our antiquated registration system.” Tens of millions of voters have been shut of voting because of an outdated registration system, Holder said.

But technology could help solve the problem by creating “a system of automatic, portable registration – in which government officials use existing databases, with appropriate privacy protections, to automatically register every eligible voter in America and enable their registration to move when they do, rather than the current system in which voters must navigate complicated and often-changing voter registration rules ….”

Recently The Washington Post also suggested it was time the federal government became more active in ensuring state voting laws were helping to expand the number voters, not squelch them.

And for those readers who might suggest this blogger is inconsistent in arguing against an aggressive federal clampdown on marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington,  but blogging in support of federal government efforts to protect equality and civil rights through landmark laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights, I say so be it. When states promote greater individual freedoms  the federal governent should respect the states' progressive actions. When states discriminate against groups of people and limit freedoms of minorities then the federal government should step in and and help set things straight -- that is ensure that the states are not depriving minorities and other vulnerable groups of people of their fundamental rights.