Attorney General Eric Holder gave a vigorous defense of a contested section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act at a speech on civil rights in Boston this evening, saying it “remains in indispensable tool for eradicating racial discrimination.”
He also called for “fail-safe procedures” to allow voters to exercise their democratic right to vote without undue burdens.
Holder, speaking at a forum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, reflected on the numerous challenges over the last two years to Section 5, which requires jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to pre-clear changes to voting procedures with the Justice Department. From 1965 to 2010, there were eight court challenges to its constitutionality. In the last two years alone, there were 10, he said.
“The unfortunate reality 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,” Holder said, according to prepared remarks. “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.
The Supreme Court last month agreed to hear a case challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which could have major ramifications on the election debate for generations to come.
Voting rights and a wave of new voter identification laws took center stage in November’s election. Proponents of voter ID laws said they were necessary to combat voter fraud, while their detractors said the laws were aimed at suppressing the votes of racial minorities and the elderly by placing hurdles in the way of voting. Holder said that voter identity fraud is almost nonexistent.
“We must also embrace the reality that experts on all sides of this debate have found… that in-person voter fraud remains rare,” he said. “And that the alleged tenstion between having accessible election systems — and having election systems that are free from fraud — is simply not real.”
In a similar case, the Republican-led legislature of Texas attempted to redraw its congressional map. In August, a three-judge federal panel threw out the plans, agreeing with the department’s position that the proposed map had both the “effect and the intent of discriminating against minority voters,” Holder said.
“The trial court was troubled by what it called ‘unchallenged evidence that the legislature removed the economic guts’ of districts represented by African Americans,” Holder said Tuesday. “And it was not persuaded by the state’s claim that these changes resulted from mere ‘coincidence.’ In agreeing with the department — which objected to the plans under Section 5 — the court found that ‘the parties have provided more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here.’ “
He advocated for reforming the redistricting process for state and federal offices, pushing for legislation that would bolster the department’s ability to prosecute legislators attempting to draw new maps that work in their favor in the voting booth.
“This means working with Congressional leaders to explore ways to deter and punish these deplorable activities,” he said.
Holder also advocated for the overhaul of what he called the “antiquated registration system” for elections.
“For example, 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 the current system in which voters must navigate complicated and often-changing voter registration rules — we could not only improve the integrity of our elections, but save precious taxpayer resources,” he said.
“As I have proposed previously, we also should enact fail-safe procedures that allow every voter to cast a regular, non-provisional ballot on Election Day. Many states have already allowed same-day registration, and we should look closely at states’ efforts to assist voters who seek only to exercise their fundamental right to participate in the democratic process,” Holder said.