Holder Vows To Enforce Civil Rights Protections

In a speech Tuesday night in Austin, Texas, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asked state legislatures to take care not to violate the Voting Rights Act. As the country approaches the 2012 elections, many states are redrawing political boundaries and there are fears minority voters may be disenfranchised.

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In a speech last night in Texas, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that the Voting Rights Act is under attack by partisan state legislatures. New state laws, he said, are disenfranchising growing numbers of minority voters, voters who, political observers point out, are most likely to support President Obama. As NPR's John Burnett reports, Attorney General Holder said the Justice Department is concerned and will fight back.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Eric Holder came to the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin for what was billed as a major policy speech on the Justice Department's efforts to defend the Voting Rights Act. LBJ signed the landmark legislation in 1965, which Holder said made it possible for a young black guy from Queens to become attorney general. He described new state voting laws the Justice Department believes will push suffrage back toward the nation's ugly past. One of the examples he cited came out of the Texas statehouse only a few blocks away.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ERIC HOLDER: The most recent census data indicated that Texas has gained more than four million new residents, the vast majority of whom are Hispanic, and that this growth allows for four new Congressional seats. However, this state has proposed adding zero additional seats in which Hispanics would have the electoral opportunity envisioned by the Voting Rights Act.

BURNETT: The GOP-controlled Texas government and a panel of federal judges are at odds over how to draw the boundaries of Texas electoral districts. Last week, the Supreme Court announced that it would settle the dispute. Holder also decried new election measures that critics have called voter suppression laws.

HOLDER: Since January, more than a dozen states have advanced new voting measures. Some of these new laws are currently under review by the Justice Department.

BURNETT: In Florida, for instance, new election laws shorten early-voting periods. South Carolina and Texas have enacted laws that require voters to show photo IDs. The attorney general said he believes the rash of new election laws are politically motivated.

HOLDER: Call on our political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hopes of attaining electoral success and instead encourage and work with the parties to achieve this success by appealing to more voters.

BURNETT: After the speech, University of Texas law professor and election law expert Joseph Fishkin pointed to a new Texas election rule as a case in point.

JOSEPH FISHKIN: Look at the voter ID law here in Texas which says a concealed handgun license is an acceptable ID and a student ID is not. Right? So Republicans think that will skew in their direction and many Democratic legislators may oppose the law for in part that exact same reason, right?

BURNETT: Republicans generally support tightening voting rules, believing voter fraud is widespread. Democrats counter that actual cases of vote fraud are few, and that GOP lawmakers simply want to make it harder for Democrats to vote. Republican Senator John Cornyn from Texas pounced on Holder's speech. Voter identification laws are constitutional, he said, and necessary to prevent fraud at the ballot box.

A group of Tea Party protestors made the same case on the lawn outside the LBJ Library. Catherine Engelbrecht, a spokesperson, was baffled that the attorney general did not even mention voting irregularities.

CATHERINE ENGELBRECHT: And for us to not look at that at all, rather to act like that doesn't exist, and to focus on making sure we're pounding our fist on the table that people are being disenfran-... it just makes no sense. No one's being disenfranchised, no one.

BURNETT: The fight is on. On Wednesday, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit charging that Wisconsin's voter ID law is unconstitutional. Eric Holder said in Austin that he would support Democrat-sponsored legislation to be introduced today that would penalize campaign workers who give inaccurate information to trick voters.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

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