Holder Defends Section 5, Calls For Reform

From voter ID to felon disenfranchisement, a barrage of anti-voter regulations were pushed through state legislatures across the country for the 2012 election. Thankfully, most of these rules never took effect—thanks to Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Section 5, requires that states with a history of racially motivated voter suppression get approval from the Department of Justice before changing their election laws. In 2012, the DOJ repeatedly rejected state attempts to restrict voting rights, preserving the eligibility of millions of Americans.

That’s why the partisans behind these anti-voter laws are now going after Section 5 itself, with a lawsuit slated to be argued in the Supreme Court next year. Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech Tuesday at the John F. Kennedy Presidential library, invoking the former President’s legacy of civil rights advocacy to defend the crucial provision:

[Section 5] has consistently 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 constitutional 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.

Like all of you, I wish this were the case. But 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. 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 indispensible tool for eradicating racial discrimination.

For instance, the Department objected to a voter identification law enacted by the State of Texas – characterized by a court as “perhaps the most stringent in the country” – that would have required voters to identify themselves with one of only five forms of identification, some of which could only be obtained if voters could afford to pay for underlying documents. A three-judge panel blocked the implementation of that law, finding that it “will almost certainly have retrogressive effect,” since “it imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor – and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.”

After hundreds of thousands of voters stood for hours in line to cast their ballots, President Obama declared “We have to fix that.” Holder also used part of Tuesday’s speech to flesh out that promise:

According to the Census Bureau, 80 percent of the 75 million adult citizens who failed to vote in the 2008 presidential election were not eligible to cast a ballot simply because they were not registered. Of these, it’s likely that some failed to register because – like one in every nine Americans – they had moved sometime during the previous year, and were unaware that, in most cases, their voter registration hadn’t moved with them. Other would-be voters might not have realized that the deadline for registering often comes as much as a full month before Election Day. And even some who did attempt to register may have been discouraged by cumbersome and outdated procedures, needlessly complex rules, improperly processed applications, and simple human errors that leave the system riddled with mistakes.

Fortunately, modern technology provides ways to address many of the problems that impede the efficient administration of elections, and to bring our elections into the 21st century. 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.

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.

Common Cause has campaigned successfully for reforms like same-day registration and online registration in states across the country, so of course we’re excited to hear Holder endorse bringing them to the federal level.

It’s often said that the vote is the right from which all other rights derive. That’s why Common Cause is dedicated to protecting and expanding voting rights for all Americans. This isn’t just about the esoteric details of election policy—it’s a fight to preserve the very essence of a democratic society.

The full text of Mr. Holder’s remarks is available here.

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