The chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division invoked the words of a Republican former Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, as he explained his division’s tack in enforcing the Voting Rights Act, which has become an explosive election year issue.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez faced a series of questions at a hearing of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution about the department’s high-profile investigations of the voter identification laws in several states, including Texas, South Carolina and Pennsylvania.
The issue has prompted accusations from both sides of the aisle, with Democrats saying Republicans are seeking to disenfranchise minority voters, while Republicans have said it is the government’s duty to root out voter fraud.
Perez quoted Mukasey, who served under former President George W. Bush, from a 2008 speech about voting rights.
“As the Supreme Court held, in an opinion by Justice Stevens, such laws serve several compelling interests, including the interest in preventing voter fraud, and the interest in safeguarding public confidence in representative government.
At the same time, the Court acknowledged the undeniable fact that voter ID laws can burden some citizens’ right to vote. It is important for states to implement and administer such laws in a way that minimizes that possibility. And it is important for the Department to do its part to guard against that possibility. We will not hesitate to use the tools available to us — including the Voting Rights Act — if these laws, important though they may be, are used improperly to deny the right to vote.”
Perez said: “That is not Attorney General [Eric] Holder, that is Attorney General Mukasey. I completely and utterly agree with him.”
The Justice Department just opened an investigation of Pennsylvania’s new voter identification law, prompting a number of new questions regarding the department’s use of the Voting Rights Act. Before the Pennsylvania case, all of the department’s recent objections to such laws came under Section 5 of the 1965 act, which requires states with a history of discrimination to pre-clear any changes with the department. The department’s objection to these laws focus on concerns that they may unfairly discriminate against minorities, the poor and students, among others, on Election Day.
The federal trial concerning the department’s objection to Texas’s voter identification law closed last week, and its result is expected to act as a harbinger of future challenges.
Perez also said it was “offensive” and “irrelevant” for anyone to allege the department is investigating any voter identification cases based on political party.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) challenged Perez, saying states attempting to add voting laws requiring identification at the polls are getting at the “bedrock underneath our Constitution.”
That bedrock “is America’s confidence in legitimate elections,” he said. “If they believe they are legitimate then they have confidence in them and accept decisions made by elected officials.”
King urged Perez to consider the issue of voter fraud when looking at such cases.