Attorney General Cites DOJ Commitment to Voting Rights in MLK Day Speech
Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's top law enforcement officer, reaffirmed the Department of Justice's commitment to voting rights in a Martin Luther King Day speech in Columbia, South Carolina, on Monday.
"Today’s Justice Department – and, specifically, our Civil Rights Division and its Voting Section – have taken meaningful steps to ensure integrity, independence, and transparency in our enforcement of the Voting Rights Act – legislation that Dr. King was instrumental in advancing and, in 1965, saw signed into law by President Johnson," Holder said. "Let me be very clear: the arc of American history has bent toward the inclusion – not the exclusion – of more of our fellow citizens in the electoral process. We must ensure that this continues."
Holder's reference to inclusion comes as the Justice Department is involved in litigation in federal courts--and before the U.S. Supreme Court--on whether congressional redistricting maps drawn in some states diluted the power of communities of color to their elect representative to Congress. The state drawing the greatest scrutiny is Texas. Under the Voting Rights Act, states cannot draw districts that roll back those opportunities for racial minorities after the U.S. Census reports once-a-decade demographic gains. The department has also rejected South Carolina's newly toughened voter ID law, saying it creates undue barriers for underrepresented communities, which it also has authority to do under the Voting Rights Act.
"The reality is that – in jurisdictions across the country – both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common. And though nearly five decades have passed since Dr. King shared his vision from the mountaintop – despite all the progress we’ve made, the barriers we’ve broken down, and the divisions we’ve healed – as a nation, we have not yet reached the Promised Land."
Holder said the Department of Justice would not retreat in the states now under dispute.
"We’re now reviewing a number of redistricting plans in covered jurisdictions. Our reviews have included the proposed plans for the state House, state Senate, and congressional delegation here in South Carolina – and also will include redistricting plans for local election bodies," he said. "We’ll also continue to review other types of changes to our election systems and processes – including changes to the procedures governing third-party voter registration organizations, to early voting procedures, and to photo identification requirements – to ensure that there is no discriminatory purpose or effect."
His speech is sure to draw criticism from Republicans accusing him of politicizing the electoral process. But it is the GOP in state after state that has increasingly sought to police the voting process, raising the barriers to entry for slices of society it sees as likely Democratic voters. The Department has unique enforcement powers, powers that many civil rights attorneys have been waiting for Holder to wield.