Texas Sues Justice Department To Declare Voting Rights Act Unconstitutional
In a move that casts Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott as a 21st century Bull Connor--the man behind Birmingham, Alabama's anti-civil rights crackdowns of the early 1960s--the state of Texas has declared legal war against the Justice Department's enforcement of minority voting rights.
On Wednesday, Abbott sued U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, seeking an expedited court ruling to declare what most civil rights lawyers see as the heart of the nation's landmark federal voting rights law, Section Five the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as unconstitutional, claiming it exceeded Congress' authority and violated the 10th Amendment and Article IV of the U.S. Constitution when the DOJ cited it to reject Texas' harsh new voter ID law.
In the Voting Right Act's Section Five, the Justice Department must approve changes in voting rules in "covered states," a euphemism for more nine states and selected counties in other states with histories of race-based discrimination.
Texas' suit was filed in response to the Department's decision on Monday to suspend the Lone Star State's new voter ID law, saying it would disenfranchise more than half a million minority voters, mostly Latinos, who lacked government-issued photo ID. Earlier this year, the DOJ also rejected South Carolina's new voter ID law, a decision that state also is fighting.
In these and a handful of other Republican-led states, legislatures have recently toughened voter ID laws to deter what they claim is voter fraud--in-person voter impersonation. They defend these efforts as protecting the integrity of the ballot. However, numerous studies have found that such instances of voter fraud are almost non-existent and are easily prosecuted by existing law, and that the real impact of harsh voter ID laws is to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters, particularly eligible voters from communities of color, low-income people, students and the elderly.
In its legal brief, Texas said that its new voter ID law does not "deny or abridge anyone's right to vote." It cited similar laws passed in other states, such as in Indiana, where the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a strict voter ID law in 2008--even though it had not yet gone into effect--and in Wisconsin, where two state courts in the past week have suspended that law from taking effect, ruling that it was discriminatory and would prevent poor people who lacked photo ID from voting.
The Texas voter ID suit comes as Texas was losing in federal court in another battle with the Justice Department--over legislative redistricting maps that two federal courts found violated other sections of the Voting Rights Act, because they diluted the ability of growing minority populations to elect representatives.
Texas' voter ID suit against the DOJ is not just a legal bait-and-switch tactic to shift attention away from its deserved setbacks in its redistricting fight with the DOJ--deserved because fair-minded federal judges on separate benches have independently concluded the state's Republican-controlled legislature drew new legislative districts that overreached by intentionally keeping communities of color from electing representatives to the Texas legislature and Congress.
The suit against Holder is tantamount to a declaration of legal warfare on the nation's landmark federal civil rights law, the Voting Rights Act, and is expected to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to early comments by election law experts blogging late Wednesday night. In December, Holder gave a prominent speech saying the DOJ would fight voter suppression efforts like the voter ID laws. Texas' response is to take this fight to the next level.
The importance of this fight cannot be underestimated. It is as significant as Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to lead a national attack on the modern labor movement and union rights.
Election law experts have been wondering when the attack on Section 5 the Voting Rights Act would come. In 2009, the Supreme Court upheld that part of the law, prompting many civil rights advocates to breathe easy for a while. But the relentless pursuit by Republican partisans to increasingly police the voting process since 2010 by passing stricter state voter ID laws suggested that it was only a matter of time before Section 5 would come under attack and likely end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. The same issue is also in play with litigation surrounding Texas' redistricting maps, where the state also hopes to bypass lower court rulings against its maps and find a more receptive treatment at the U.S. Supreme Court.
In other words, nearly 50 years after the county passed landmark civil and voting rights legislation to end the Jim Crow era of race-based discrimination in civic life and elections, the modern political party most closely affiliated with suppressing voters' participation--the Republican Party--is inciting a no-holds-barred legal battle to restore a state right to discriminate and discourage equal participation in elections.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has been angling to be the GOP's point man in the battle to destroy federal oversight of voting rights for several years. Four years ago, AlterNet reported how Abbott send special police to spy on elderly Latino and African-American women to create trumped up charges of voter fraud because they helped home-bound seniors fill out absentee ballots--charges that he was forced to abandon on courthouse steps because they were not factual.
The United States has not seen such a widespread attack on voting rights since the 1960s. Greg Abbott is the new Bull Connor.