Holder Asks For Federal Voting Oversight In Texas

Attorney General Eric Holder has asked a court to order federal oversight of Texas' voting practices because he says the state discriminated against minority voters during the redistricting process. It's the first in a wave of federal actions to protect voters after a recent Supreme Court ruling threw out part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

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You might say the Justice Department is messing with Texas. Attorney General Eric Holder has asked a court to order federal oversight of that state's voting practices. He says Texas discriminated against minority voters during a redistricting process. It's the first in a wave of federal actions to protect voters after a recent Supreme Court ruling threw out part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The attorney general still holds out hope that Congress will rewrite the heart of a landmark Voting Rights Act. But Eric Holder told the National Urban League yesterday he's not taking any chances.

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ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination wherever it is found. But let me be very clear: These remaining tools are no substitute for legislation that must fill the void left by the Supreme Court's decision.

JOHNSON: Many lawmakers doubt the divided Congress can come together and write a new plan for states with a recent history of hurting minority voters.

Election law expert Rick Hasen at the University of California, Irvine is pessimistic, too. That's why he thinks the Justice Department move in Texas is such a big deal.

RICK HASEN: Well, there's an irony here, which is that if DOJ is successful at getting Texas covered through this bail in provision, it would create another argument against reenacting Section 5, with the point being that if there is a recent history of discrimination, the way to solve it is to have DOJ seek bail in.

JOHNSON: Bail in. Here's how it works: Under part of the Voting Rights Act, that remains in place, known as Section 3. If a court finds discrimination against minority voters, those voters or the U.S. attorney general can ask the court to require federal oversight for election changes in the state. That's happened in places like Arkansas and New Mexico. But it's time-consuming, and the burden of proof is on the challenger. Still, election law experts say it's better than nothing.

Reaction from Texas was sharp and spirited. Republican Governor Rick Perry says the Obama administration demonstrated contempt for the Constitution and did an end-run around the Supreme Court. And the state's Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott - who's running for governor - accused the Justice Department of abusing the law.

GREG ABBOTT: I believe the Obama administration is joining with the Democrat Party of the state of Texas in a lawsuit aimed at the 2014 elections, rather than trying to protect the rights of minorities.

JOHNSON: But Attorney General Holder pointed out, only last year, a special court found intentional discrimination when Texas lawmakers redrew their electoral maps, transferring important business and civic venues out of districts that belonged to black members of Congress. Eric Holder.

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HOLDER: And in that ruling, the court noted that the parties - and I quote. This is what the court said: "The parties provided more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space or need to address here."

JOHNSON: Abbott, the top law man in Texas, says that's ancient history.

ABBOTT: The Supreme Court vacated those decisions, so those decisions no longer exist as a matter of law and cannot be validly used for any legal purpose.

JOHNSON: Justice Department officials say their move in Texas is only the beginning. They're reviewing that state's voter ID law and election changes in North Carolina. Rick Hasen's watching, too.

HASEN: The North Carolina legislature is poised to pass one of the strictest and toughest voter ID laws and set of voting changes that we've seen in this country in decades.

JOHNSON: Hasen notes any appeals could wind up right back at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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