Attorney General Eric Holder Stresses Need for Safeguarding Minority Access to Polls

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Citing legal attacks to a key provision of the historical Voting Rights Act of 1965, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder on Wednesday stressed the need to safeguard minority access to the polls.

“In 2012, nearly half a century since the landmark Voting Rights Act was signed into law, our nation’s long struggle to expand the franchise and guarantee the most basic right of American citizenship continues,” Holder said in a speech he gave at the annual meeting of the American Law Institute, or ALI, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that works on legal reform issues.

Holder focused much of his speech on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In short, Section 5 requires certain “covered” states to seek permission from the federal court in D.C. or the U.S. Attorney General’s office before they can enforce any changes to their election practices and procedures. This “preclearance” requirement is meant to prevent the states from making changes that would have a discriminatory effect on the basis of race, color or language.

Initially a temporary provision of the Voting Rights Act, Section 5 has been reauthorized several times since 1965, the most recent being in 2006 when it was extended under the George W. Bush administration until 2031.

Holder said preclearance has proved to be a “powerful tool in combating discrimination for decades.”

“Yet, in the six years since its reauthorization, Section 5 has increasingly come under attack by those who believe it’s no longer needed,” Holder said.

In some ways, given the fact that this is an election year for his boss, it would be easy to view Holder’s call to action on Section 5 as being as much political as it was about civil rights.

At the same time, based on recent challenges to Section 5 that emanated from Republican-controlled states—namely, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama—one could also conclude that those legal challenges have made the issue political.

Holder noted that, between 1965 and 2010, only eight challenges to Section 5 were filed in court.  

“By contrast, over the last two years alone, we’ve seen no fewer than nine lawsuits contesting the constitutionality of that provision,” Holder said. He noted that four of those cases are currently in court.

“Each of these challenges to Section 5 claims that we’ve attained a new era of electoral equality, that America in 2012 has moved beyond the challenges of 1965, and that Section 5 is no longer necessary,” Holder said.

“I wish this were the case,” the nation’s top attorney continued. “But the reality is that, despite how far we’ve come as a nation, in jurisdictions across the country both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common and have not yet been relegated to the pages of history.”

A number of legal scholars have joined the fray on contemporary issues of the ballot. Among them is Spencer Overton, a George Washington University law professor and author of Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression.

Overton, who took a leave of absence to serve as Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy within the U.S. Department of Justice at the beginning of the Obama administration, argues that race still matters in American politics and that federal voter protections are necessary to ensure minority access to the polls.

“Withdrawal of federal voting rights protections could have dire consequences,” according to his website describing Overton’s book.

For historical context, Overton notes that, between 1870 and 1900, Southern states sent 22 African-Americans to Congress. “As a result of the end of Reconstruction and federal withdrawal, the South sent zero African-Americans to Congress between 1902 and 1973,” his website says.

Jotaka Eaddy, senior director at the NAACP Voting Rights Initiative, said federal protections remain necessary today in order to beat back various efforts to suppress the minority vote, such as voter-photo ID requirements that civil rights advocates have said would have a discriminatory effect. In Texas, for instance, a photo ID voting law that was blocked by the Justice Department would have allowed concealed weapon licenses but not student IDs.

“While the tactics vary, the outcome is the same,” Eaddy said in reference to what she termed as “voter suppression legislation” that dozens of states have pursued in recent years.

“It is really a massive movement by conservatives to really set back the massive progressions in terms of access to the ballots and voter participation,” Eaddy said.