Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been under increasing pressure from civil rights groups and the Congressional Black Caucus to step up the Justice Department’s efforts to fight restrictive new voting laws that threaten to disenfranchise African-American and other voters, pledged on Tuesday to take an aggressive stance to protect voting rights.
"We need election systems that are free from fraud, discrimination and partisan influence — and that are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country," Holder said in remarks delivered at the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas.
In 2008, a huge turnout by African-American and young voters gave President Obama an overwhelming victory. Their enthusiasm was dampened in 2010, however, which helped Republicans gain control of several state legislatures that are now imposing rules that require voters to present state-issued photo identification cards, shorten early voting periods and make it more difficult for groups such as the League of Women Voters to conduct voter registration drives.
Critics of the stricter voting rules say that they’re designed to rig the system to ensure GOP victories in 2012 by making it more difficult for minority, elderly and low-income voters to cast ballots on Election Day. According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, the new laws could disenfranchise as many as five million voters.
"Over the years, we've seen all sorts of attempts to gain partisan advantage by keeping people away from the polls — from literacy tests and poll taxes, to misinformation campaigns telling people that Election Day has been moved, or that only one adult per household can cast a ballot," Holder said.
The Justice Department is required under the Voting Rights Act to review new voting measures in 16 states because of their past history of discrimination. Holder said that DOJ would carefully review the measures as well as redistricting maps. He pointed to a redistricting plan in a Louisiana parish that diminished electoral opportunities for African-Americans that the department objected to, forcing a new map to be drawn.
Holder also proposed that the federal government automatically register citizens to vote.
"Today, the single biggest barrier to voting in this country is our antiquated registration system," the attorney general said. "All eligible citizens can and should be automatically registered to vote."
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