Justice Department to Weigh In on Challenges to Election Law Revisions


Eric Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the Justice Department in Washington.

The Obama administration plans to jump in on lawsuits against GOP-engineered voting restrictions in Ohio and Wisconsin, Attorney General Eric Holder has said.

The move would be the first time the Department of Justice has intervened in cases outside of the jurisdictions—most of them in the South—that were released from federal oversight by the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision last year.

“I expect that we are going to be filing in cases that are already in existence in Wisconsin as well as in Ohio,” Holder said in an unaired portion of an interview with Pierre Thomas of ABC News, according MSNBC, to which the DOJ released a full transcript. The interview was conducted Friday in London, where Holder was attending meetings about terrorism threats.

The decision reflects the administration’s new aggressive stance on protecting access to the ballot box across the country.

For example, back in August 2013, when the department filed a lawsuit against Texas to bar its voter ID law, Holder declared, “We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision (Shelby) to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights.  The department will take action against jurisdictions that attempt to hinder access to the ballot box, no matter where it occurs.”

In Ohio, as the AFRO earlier reported, the Republican Legislature passed legislation that shaved six days off the early voting period, and completely eliminated “Golden Week,” a brief window when voters could register and vote early on the same day, among other changes. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted later announced statewide, uniform early voting hours that contain no evening or Sunday hours.

A federal judge in June ordered Ohio to restore the last three days of early voting before Election Day. But groups such as the ACLU are challenging the remaining changes, alleging that they disproportionately impact African Americans and other minorities.

For example, African Americans are much more likely to use early voting. According to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one study showed that African Americans in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County voted early at 26 times the rate of White voters, accounting for 25 percent of overall voter turnout but 75 percent of early in-person voter turnout.

In April, a federal judge struck down Wisconsin’s voter ID law, siding with activists who complained the law imposed an unfair burden on poor and minority voters. The state has appealed the decision, however, and litigation is ongoing.

It is not clear what form the DOJ’s intervention in these cases would take—whether it would simply file amicus briefs or intervene as plaintiffs.

Either way, Holder seems to be sending a strong message.

In the interview, he denigrated Republican claims that voter ID laws prevent voter fraud, calling them “political efforts” that make it harder to vote for “groups that are not supportive of those in power.”

“Who is disproportionately impacted by them? Young people, African Americans, Hispanics, older people, people who, for whatever reason, aren’t necessarily supportive of the Republican Party,” Holder said, adding: “This notion that there is widespread in-person voter fraud is simply belied by the facts.”

Holder’s tone reflects that of President Obama’s, who has also upped his rhetoric on the issue of voter suppression in recent months.

“The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” the president said in his address to the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in April. “Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote.”

The president linked the modern-day battle for voting rights to the battles of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Americans did not stand up and did not march and did not sacrifice to gain the right to vote, for themselves and for others, only to see it denied to their kids and their grandkids,” Obama said, later adding, “As President, I’m not going to let attacks on these rights go unchallenged.  We’re not going to let voter suppression go unchallenged.”

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