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Obama Administration Joins Battle Over Voting Rights


- Compiled by KOREY CLARK

This year more than a dozen states have passed new voting laws that supporters say were necessary to deter fraud and opponents say will dampen minority voter turnout in next year's elections. Last week the Obama administration placed itself squarely if circumspectly in the latter camp, with Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that the Justice Department would be aggressively reviewing the new laws. 
In a speech delivered at the presidential library of Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, barring the discriminatory voting practices that had disenfranchised African Americans mostly in the South, Holder declared that protecting the right of all Americans to vote "must be viewed not only as a legal issue but as a moral imperative." He went on to urge citizens to "call on our political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success and, instead, achieve success by appealing to more voters." 

Holder prefaced a brief discussion of current Justice Department activity on the new voting laws with a quote from U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), who stated in a speech on the House floor this summer that voting rights are "under attack...[by] a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, [and] minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process." 
Holder said some of the new laws passed since January (see Bird's eye view) were already under review by his department, in accordance with the "preclearance" provision - Section 5 - of the Voting Rights Act. That provision requires 16 states to prove to the federal government that any new voting laws they pass are not discriminatory before they can take effect. Holder singled out South Carolina and Texas, which enacted photo ID laws this year, as well as Florida, which made several changes to its voting procedures, including reducing the length of its early voting period. 
Holder even made a pitch for universal voter registration. Noting that 60 million of the 75 million adult citizens who didn't vote in the last presidential election were not registered, he said: "All eligible citizens can and should be automatically registered to vote. The ability to vote is a right - it is not a privilege." He said it could be accomplished "if we have the political will to bring our election systems into the 21st compiling - from databases that already exist - a list of all eligible residents in each jurisdiction." 

Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, and a former Justice Department official during the administration of George W. Bush, said the Obama administration's stance on the new voting laws was driven by "ideology and politics." He pointed out that courts have found voter ID laws in Georgia and Indiana to be nondiscriminatory. 
"Georgia's law has been in place for five years...and not only did the turnout for African Americans not go down, it went up," he said. 
Holder, however, rejected the idea that the Justice Department was playing politics with the new laws. 
"We're doing this in a very fair, apolitical way," he said. "We don't want anybody to think that there is a partisan component to anything we are doing." 
But the reality is that most of the new state voting laws were passed by Republican legislatures and signed by Republican governors. The voters most likely to be impacted by the laws are the ones who turned out in record numbers in 2008 to elect President Obama and then stayed home in 2010, when Republicans won sweeping victories across the country. And the states where the laws have been passed represent six of the 12 likely battlegrounds in 2012, according to analysis by The Los Angeles Times, as well as 185 electoral votes, more than two thirds of the 270 needed to decide the presidency. (NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, BRENNAN CENTER FOR JUSTICE) 

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