On Tuesday Attorney General Eric Holder said he is ready to fully enforce civil rights protections in next year’s elections.
"We need election systems that are free from fraud, discrimination and partisan influence — and that are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country," Holder said, speaking at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas.
Texas is just one of the states the Department of Justice is investigating for introducing photo ID laws that could potentially block millions from casting their ballots by requiring them to produce a photo identification before entering a voting booth.
Experts say the new restrictions fall most heavily on young and low-income voters, those with disabilities and voters of color.
"In 1965, when President Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act into law, he proclaimed that ‘the right to vote is the basic right, without which all others are meaningless,’ " Holder said on Tuesday night. "Today, as attorney general, I have the privilege — and the solemn duty — of enforcing this law, and the other civil rights reforms that President Johnson championed. This work is among the Justice Department’s most important priorities."
South Carolina, Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Wisconsin have also enacted more stringent voter ID laws this year. A study released in October from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU predicts five million voters could be affected by the deluge of restrictive voting laws that have swept the country.
The Attorney General also spoke about other initiatives to prevent citizens from voting.
"Over the years, we’ve seen all sorts of attempts to gain partisan advantage by keeping people away from the polls — from literacy tests and poll taxes, to misinformation campaigns telling people that Election Day has been moved, or that only one adult per household can cast a ballot," said Holder.
"Just last week, the campaign manager of a Maryland gubernatorial candidate was convicted on election-fraud charges for approving anonymous ‘robocalls’ that went out on Election Day last year to more than 100,000 voters in the state’s two largest majority-black jurisdictions," Holder said to stress voting rights still can’t be taken for granted for voters of color. "These calls encouraged voters to stay home — telling them to ‘relax’ because their preferred candidate had already wrapped up a victory."
Holder also encouraged citizens to fight against politically driven redistricting decisions that undercut the representation of constituents, and to support state efforts to modernize the voter-registration system based on regularly updated electronic databases.
"All eligible citizens can and should be automatically registered to vote," he said of modernizing the process. "Under our current system, many voters must follow cumbersome and needlessly complex voter-registration rules. And every election season, state and local officials have to manually process a crush of new applications — most of them handwritten — leaving the system riddled with errors and, too often, creating chaos at the polls."
Re-emphasizing that voting rights cannot be taken for granted today any more than in 1965, the Attorney General issued a call for Americans to speak out against suppression efforts and urge policymakers to find ways to encourage, not limit, voting participation.
The states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes in 2012 – 63 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency.