Attorney General Eric Holder told members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Conference of National Black Churches on Wednesday that the right to vote was threatened across the country.
"The reality is that in jurisdictions across the country, both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common and have not yet been relegated to the pages of history," Holder told the audience, made up of black church and political leaders, during a faith leaders summit in Washington.
He also reaffirmed the Justice Department's commitment to the Voting Rights Act, and in particular, the section of the law which prohibits certain states from making changes to their election laws without first getting federal approval, and which has been the focus of several recent court challenges.
"Between 1965 and 2010, nearly half a century, only eight challenges to [the provision] were filed in court," Holder said. "By contrast, in the last two years alone, we've seen nine lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of that provision."
Holder said the Justice Department was currently examining proposals made by several states to change their rules for third-party registration, early voting, and requirements for voter ID.
"If a state passes a new voting law and meets its burden of showing that the law is not discriminatory, we will follow the law and will approve that change," he said. "When a jurisdiction fails to meet its burden in proving that a voting change will not have a racially discriminatory effect, we will object, as we have in 15 different cases."
Voter ID laws, which requires voters to present official government identification before they cast a ballot in an elections, have become a hot-button issue this election cycle. Since 2008, voter ID laws have either gone into effect or are pending in at least 11 states. Five other states had measures that were eventually vetoed by governors. Some form of photo ID laws are now on the books in at least 30 states.
Republicans have backed the measures, calling them necessary to prevent voter fraud. But a federal panel last year found that there was little to no election fraud in the United States. While other critics of the laws say that the groups most likely to be harmed by the rules -- blacks, Latinos, the poor, and college students -- are groups that are key parts of the Democratic voting bloc. According to a recent study, nearly one in four African Americans does not have a state ID.
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