Holder: DOJ Wants To Oversee Texas' Voting Laws Again

Attorney General Eric Holder has announced an aggressive new strategy in response to a Supreme Court ruling last month overturning a key part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department is starting in Texas, where it is asking a court to force the state to get federal approval before making any election changes - using a different part of the law.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

There's been a major development in the fight over the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Weeks after the Supreme Court threw out a key part of that landmark law, government lawyers have launched an aggressive new strategy they say will protect minority voters. Today, the Justice Department asked a court to force Texas to get federal approval before it makes election changes. Justice is basing its argument on a different section of the law, as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: For nearly 50 years, the U.S. government required states with a history of discrimination to seek federal blessing for any voting changes. Last month, a divided Supreme Court all but removed the most powerful tool in the Justice Department arsenal when it threw out the formula for covering states under that part of the Voting Rights Act. But Attorney General Eric Holder says discrimination at the ballot box hasn't gone away. Case in point, Holder says, is Texas.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: And today, I am announcing that the Justice Department will ask a federal court in Texas to subject the state of Texas to a pre-clearance regime similar to the one required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

JOHNSON: Speaking at the National Urban League conference in Philadelphia, Holder told a cheering audience that he's undeterred by the high court ruling in a case involving Shelby County, Alabama.

HOLDER: This is the department's first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last. Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the court's ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law's remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected.

JOHNSON: Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, says the Obama administration move demonstrates, quote, "utter contempt for the Constitution." And on Capitol Hill, U.S. Senator John Cornyn, another Texas Republican, had this reaction.

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: Attorney General Holder will stop at nothing, from a political standpoint, in order to try to do an end run not only around the Texas Legislature, but around the Supreme Court of the United States.

JOHNSON: Cornyn says he doesn't think the Justice Department gambit will work. But election law experts aren't so sure. Federal lawyers could get a boost in their efforts because a court in Washington, D.C., already agreed with them last year. That court found so much discrimination in the overhaul of Texas electoral maps that it didn't have time or space to mention all of it. Lawyer Gerry Hebert represented Texas Democrats in that case.

GERALD HEBERT: Texas seems to have been a real breeding ground, frankly, for racial discrimination when it comes to voting.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department could use that evidence to get a different federal court to bail Texas into federal oversight under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, not as sweeping as the old tool, but not nothing either. Rick Hasen studies election law at the University of California, Irvine.

RICHARD HASEN: Part of this must be a calculation on the part of DOJ that Congress is not going to be doing anything, and certainly not doing anything anytime soon. And so it's up to DOJ to be proactive in trying to get additional protection for minority voters.

JOHNSON: Justice Department officials already have their eye on a separate Texas voter ID law and a similar measure under consideration in North Carolina because, as the attorney general says, today's action is only the beginning. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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