Justice Department Gets Aggressive On Voting Rights

After the Supreme Court threw out a key provision of the landmark 1965 law in June, the DOJ is taking action. This the department sued the state of Texas over its voter ID law. Texas officials immediately denounced the moves as stepping on states' rights. Host Rachel Martin talks to NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson about the case.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the central achievements of the civil rights movement was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected minority voters. This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a key section of the landmark law. After that decision, Texas, along with other states, moved to impose new voting restrictions.

The U.S. Justice Department says those changes are discriminatory. And this past week, the department filed suit against the State of Texas.

For more on this, NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us in the studio. Thanks for being here, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: You're welcome, Rachel.

MARTIN: So first off, what does the Justice Department find discriminatory about these changes?

JOHNSON: At issue here is the 2011 law the state legislature of Texas enacted. This law limits the kinds of voter identifications that are acceptable at the polling sites in the state of Texas. The Justice Department says this law was enacted with discriminatory intent. In other words, that it was enacted almost implicitly to hurt black and Latino voters in the state. It also says some provisions in the law, or the way the law is about to be carried out, will have a disproportionate impact on minorities.

What that means, Rachel, is that because it's going to be harder to get these kinds of special voter IDs, and because of the places to get those IDs in Texas are 200 or 250 miles away, in a state that's vast and with very little public transportation, it's going to have a disproportionate impact on poor people who happen to be black and Latino, in many cases.

MARTIN: So not surprisingly, Texas officials are not pleased with this lawsuit. What did they have to say about the lawsuit?

JOHNSON: Right out of the gate, the Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who happens to be running for governor, blamed the Justice Department for messing with Texas. And the current governor, Rick Perry, says the Obama administration is unconstitutionally intruding on state sovereignty. Moreover, Senator John Cornyn, also from Texas, has accused the White House and Eric Holder's Justice Department of siding with Texas Democrats and trying to turn that state blue.

MARTIN: So what happens now? Is the Justice Department planning to take any further action in Texas or in other states, for that matter?

JOHNSON: So this is one of two lawsuits the Justice Department has now filed against Texas. The first is the voter ID case we've been talking about. The second involves the redistricting efforts in Texas a couple of years ago. In both cases, the Justice Department wants a court to impose new federal oversight on Texas. Texas had been operating under that kind of oversight until the Supreme Court decision in June. And the Justice Department wants to make sure that it knows about any voting and election changes before they happen in the state.

This is not by any means the end of the effort. Attorney General said that these cases against Texas are the first, but they won't be the last. Next up, Rachel, we think on the list is the state of North Carolina which, after the Supreme Court decision, passed out one of the strictest voting laws in the country. And we expect the Justice Department to move there within weeks or months.

MARTIN: Carrie, what does the Justice Department's challenge in Texas tell us, if anything, about the likelihood of overturning similar voting laws in North Carolina or other states?

JOHNSON: So, this is not going to be easy for the federal government. These are not easy cases to win, in part because the old regime, which the Supreme Court has now tossed up in the air, used to put the burden on states to prove that they were not discriminating against minority voters. Now the burden is on the federal government and the minority voters. That's a very hard case to make.

Moreover, in particular, with regard to these voter ID laws, there's Supreme Court precedent that's on the books dating back only to 2008, in which they found Indiana's voter ID law to be constitutional. Georgia's voter ID law has also passed muster with the courts. So, this is going to be a very heavy lift for the Justice Department.

MARTIN: NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks so much, Carrie.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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