WASHINGTON — The Obama administration opened an aggressive new front in the battle over voter protection Thursday, singling out Texas for legal action and promising broader efforts to come after last month's Supreme Court ruling that wiped out a major provision of the Voting Rights Act.
It was the administration's first legal response to counter the justices' 5-4 decision, but Attorney General Eric Holder pledged that "it will not be our last."
In a speech to the National Urban League in Philadelphia, Holder called the Voting Rights Act "the cornerstone of modern civil rights law" and said that "we cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve."
Texas Republicans suggested the administration effort was more about politics.
"This decision has nothing to do with protecting voting rights and everything to do with advancing a partisan political agenda," Sen John Cornyn said after Holder's speech.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the Obama administration seemed to be "sowing racial divide" and accused the administration of joining Texas Democrats with an eye on the 2014 elections. Abbott is running for governor.
The Supreme Court, on June 25, threw out the most powerful part of the Voting Rights Act, whose enactment in 1965 marked a major turning point in black Americans' struggle for equal rights and political power.
Holder said the first Justice Department move would be to ask a federal court in San Antonio to require advance approval for voting changes in Texas, a state riven with political battles, from redistricting to voter ID requirements.
"Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the court's ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law's remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected," Holder said.
The Justice Department is asking that a preapproval requirement in Texas apply for 10 years and "beyond 10 years in the event of further discriminatory acts," the department said in a court filing in San Antonio.
The separate provision of the Voting Rights Act that Holder is invoking may be a difficult tool for the Obama administration to use.
A handful of jurisdictions have been subjected to advance approval of election changes through the Civil Rights Act provision it is relying on, but a court first must find that a state or local government engaged in intentional discrimination under the Constitution's 14th or 15th amendments, or the jurisdiction has to admit to discrimination. Unlike in other parts of the voting law, the discriminatory effect of an action is not enough to trigger the so-called bail-in provision.
In the Texas case, the department is not directly intervening but is filing what's known as a statement of interest in support of private groups that have filed suit.
"The fact that intervention in Texas is the Department of Justice's first action to protect voting rights" following the Supreme Court decision "speaks volumes about the seriousness of Texas' actions," said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat from San Antonio and chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which is a plaintiff in the San Antonio case.
North Carolina may become another target for the administration's initiative.
On Wednesday, the Republican-dominated North Carolina Senate gave preliminary approval to sweeping election law changes, including a requirement that voters present photo Identification at the polls and a shortening of early voting by a week.
In Texas, Holder said, there is a history of "pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities."
Based on evidence of intentional racial discrimination presented last year in a redistricting case, "we believe that the state of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices," said Holder.
In its filing in San Antonio, the Justice Department said that "in every redistricting cycle since 1970, courts have similarly found that one or more of Texas' statewide redistricting plans violated the voting guarantees of the Constitution or provisions of the Voting Rights Act."
A three-judge panel in San Antonio has been looking at Texas voting maps for state and congressional redistricting since 2011, when the court threw out boundaries drawn by a then-GOP supermajority in the statehouse.
An ensuing legal battle between the state and a coalition of minority rights groups upset the 2012 elections in Texas, delaying party primaries that ultimately used temporary maps drawn by the court.
Under the direction of GOP Gov. Rick Perry last month, the Legislature ratified those interim maps as permanent over the objection of Democrats, who still contend the maps are biased and underrepresent minorities.
On Thursday, Perry called the Obama administration's actions an "end-run around the Supreme Court."
Last year, a federal court in Washington, D.C., found that Texas lawmakers had intentionally discriminated against minorities in drawing political maps and that the state's voter ID law would disenfranchise minority voters. But the Supreme Court decision throwing out part of the Voting Rights Act removed the power of that court to stop those measures from going into effect.
Minority groups asked the three-judge panel in San Antonio last month to adopt the findings of the District of Columbia court and require Texas to submit all proposed voting-law changes for prior court review. Holder's announcement places the Justice Department on the San Antonio minority groups' side.
Last month, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the part of the Voting Rights Act under which all or parts of 15 mainly Southern states had been required to submit all voting changes for approval from Washington before they could take effect.
The decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said it was no longer fair to subject those jurisdictions to strict federal monitoring based on data that was at least 40 years old. Such extraordinary intrusion on state power to conduct elections could be justified only by current conditions, Roberts said.
"There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions," the chief justice said.
Collins reported from Philadelphia. AP writers Chris Tomlinson and Paul Weber in Austin, Texas, Mark Sherman in Washington and Michael Biesecker in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this story.
Also on HuffPost:
You're an average voter in Pennsylvania. The night before Election Day, your wallet goes missing, leaving you without immediate access to any of the identification you'll need to vote at your local precinct the following morning. This would be a problem under <a href="http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/voter-id.aspx#PA" target="_hplink">Pennsylvania's proposed photo ID law</a>, since <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/02/pennsylvania-voter-id-ruling_n_1919187.html" target="_hplink">blocked by a state judge</a>. While many people in this situation may have backup forms of identification, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/pennsylvania-voter-id-law_n_1652469.html" target="_hplink">studies have shown</a> that a significant percentage of would-be voters don't. The state's safeguard against the immediate disenfranchisement of people in this situation would be a provisional ballot cast on the day of the election. But this doesn't mean your vote counts, yet. Anyone who casts a provisional ballot is required to "appear in person at the county board of elections" within six days of the vote to provide proof that their ballot was valid. If you're able to take time away from your job to do this, the process still requires a would-be voter to either show up with valid ID -- a replacement driver's license <a href="http://www.dmv.state.pa.us/fees/index.shtml" target="_hplink">would cost $36</a> and considerable time -- or to <a href="http://www.dmv.state.pa.us/pdotforms/voterid/VoterAffirmationNoProofofID.pdf" target="_hplink">sign an affirmation</a> that you are indigent and not able to afford the fees associated with acquiring a photo ID. Even if you make a rapid and somewhat expensive turnaround to get a replacement ID -- or alternatively swear under oath that you are too poor to pay for such a document -- there is no guarantee that your vote will end up counting. Many elections are largely decided before provisional voters have a chance to verify their validity, which could serve to discouraging them from following up with election officials or leave them effectively disenfranchised. In 2008, <a href="http://www.eac.gov/assets/1/Documents/2008 Election Administration and Voting Survey EAVS Report.pdf" target="_hplink">only 61.8 percent</a> of all provisional ballots cast were fully counted. If strict photo ID measures were implemented, however, the number of provisional ballots submitted would likely increase, as would the requirements for voters hoping to make them count. <em>(Photo: AP)</em>
Eleven percent of eligible voters say they lack current government-issued photo IDs, a <a href="http://www.brennancenter.org/page/-/d/download_file_39242.pdf" target="_hplink">survey</a> on the potential impact of voter ID laws found. You live in Georgia and you're one of them. Like 66,515 other Georgians, according to a <a href="http://brennan.3cdn.net/773c569439b50452e0_kzm6bo5l6.pdf" target="_hplink">recent study</a> from the Brennan Center for Justice, you also lack vehicle access and live more than 10 miles from an office that issues state ID. As a registered voter who's skipped the past few elections, you decide you'll vote this year. But you spend your life working multiple jobs to provide for your family, not tuned in to a news cycle that may have told you about a voter ID law that changed the requirements. If you were aware of the measure, you'd know that you have to get yourself to a state office during business hours to procure a photo ID in order to vote. According to the Brennan Center, these facilities are often only open part time, especially in areas with the highest concentration of people of color and in poverty. While the state does offer a free photo ID initiative, the Brennan Center points out that many of the offices provide confusing or inaccurate information about what Georgians need to do to get one. This may be a tough task as you juggle a strenuous work schedule with other commitments -- and that's assuming you're aware of the requirement. But you're not, so you head to your voting precinct on election day with no access to an acceptable form of identification and vote with a provisional ballot. To <a href="http://sos.georgia.gov/gaphotoid/3679BasicVotingInfo_printer final.pdf" target="_hplink">verify that ballot</a>, you'll have two days to present appropriate photo ID at your county registrar's office, which at this point wouldn't be doable. <em>(Photo: AP)</em>
As an elderly Tennessee resident, you've made a decades-long Election Day habit of traveling to your local polling place and exercising your franchise. It's an important day for you, and it gives you the rare opportunity to leave your house, where you live alone. For a number of years, you've had an identification card that allows you to vote. But thanks to the state's strict new voter ID law, that document will no longer be sufficient. Reports <a href="http://www.wbir.com/news/article/185824/2/Tennessee-voter-ID-law-awaits-effect-on-seniors" target="_hplink">found</a> that 230,000 Tennesseans older than 60 possess driver's licenses that don't have photos on them. Such ID will not be accepted at polling places in November. While the state has agreed to issue photo IDs free to anyone who asks, a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/12/tennessee-voter-id-law-program_n_1669323.html" target="_hplink">recent study</a> found that only a tiny percentage of potential targets have applied. Perhaps that's because people like you weren't aware of exactly how the change was going to affect them. Maybe you weren't even aware of the change. Poll workers tell you that you can cast a provisional ballot on Election Day. You'll <a href="http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/voter-id.aspx#tn" target="_hplink">have until</a> "the close of business on the second business day after the election" to find an applicable piece of identification -- which you don't have -- and present it to a designated elections official. Whether it's your lack of an acceptable form of identification, the difficulty in finding transportation back to the elections official, or the prospect of having to go through the drain of the entire process again, you're discouraged, and give up. <em>(Photo: AP)</em>
You're a resident of Kansas in your early 60s, fully expecting to vote in November. Your driver's license is your primary form of ID, but you rarely carry it anymore. You don't drive and you haven't traveled abroad in years, leaving your passport expired or lost. In the months before the election, you changed addresses, and for some reason never received a notification from the state reminding you that your license had expired. On the day of the election, you head to your polling place, unaware that you're about to be told your license is expired and therefore invalid according to the state's new voter ID law (Kansans over the age of 65 can use expired IDs, but you're not there yet). You're given a provisional ballot and informed that <a href="http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/voter-id.aspx#Kansas" target="_hplink">you must</a> now "provide a valid form of identification to the county election officer in person or provide a copy by mail or electronic means before the meeting of the county board of canvassers." While Kansas says it has <a href="http://www.wycokck.org/Internet2010ElectionBanner.aspx?menu_id=1092&banner=27765&id=26946" target="_hplink">historically counted</a> around 70 percent of its provisional ballots, this year provides a different landscape. The next steps can be somewhat difficult, and with the enacting of the state's photo ID law, the use of such ballots will undoubtedly become more commonplace. Faced with disenfranchisement, you must now race against the clock to have your vote included. With no other acceptable forms of ID available, you go about the process of renewing your license. <a href="http://www.ksrevenue.org/renewingdl.html" target="_hplink">According to the state</a>, this requires you to make your way to a state office, where you'll have to provide a number of identifying documents and pay the fee. By the time you can find someone to chauffeur you through this process -- public transportation is complex and unreliable where you live, <a href="http://www.kansas.com/2012/07/24/2418365/voter-id-law-burdens-wichita.html" target="_hplink">even if you're in an urban center</a> -- most of the major election results have been announced on the news. You decide the undertaking isn't worth the time. <em>(Photo: AP)</em>
You're a first-time voter in Indiana who <a href="https://forms.in.gov/Download.aspx?id=9341" target="_hplink">registered to vote</a> at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles using your Social Security number, a process that also <a href="http://www.in.gov/bmv/2339.htm" target="_hplink">required you</a> to get a state identification card, which you placed in your wallet. As a recent high school graduate who commutes with other workers to your full time job on a farm, you rarely need to present identification, so you didn't even bother to get a new ID card when it went missing from your locker a few weeks before the election. You risk potential firing when you travel to your polling place with other members of your community on voting day, but you're intent on participating in your first election. Without valid photo ID, however, you don't get to pull the lever. Under Indiana's new photo ID law, you're instead required to fill out a provisional ballot. But you're told you'll still need to jump through additional hoops that could prove too demanding. Now tasked with making visits during business hours to both the Indiana BMV to <a href="http://www.dmv.com/in/indiana/drivers-license-replacement" target="_hplink">get a replacement ID</a>, and then to the <a href="http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/voter-id.aspx#in" target="_hplink">county elections board</a> to verify your ballot, you decide keeping your job is more important than voting. <em>(Photo: AP)</em>
Pennsylvania, Part II
Viviette Applewhite was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's new voter ID measure. She's a 93-year-old great-great grandmother who has voted regularly for decades. She claimed she didn't have access to any of the documents she'd need to vote. With no driver's license and no birth certificate, needed to get a photo ID, Applewhite said she'd be disenfranchised by the law. And she wasn't the only one. A <a href="http://www.aclupa.org/legal/legaldocket/applewhiteetalvcommonwealt/voteridclients.htm" target="_hplink">number of other plantiffs in the ACLU case</a> against Pennsylvania's photo ID law claimed they had been unsuccessful in attempts to get copies of their birth certificates and other papers due to complexities in the state's record-keeping. Most claimed the measure would take away their vote. The law has since been blocked for this election cycle.
Georgia, Part II
You're a longtime resident of Georgia, but you've just recently returned home from a six-month out-of-town assignment from your job. You get into town on the Monday before Election Day. Most of your possessions are still being shipped from halfway across the country. Old friends invite you to a bar to catch up, but in the process of removing your driver's license from your wallet to present to a bouncer, it cracks in half, leaving it officially invalidated. Without a valid license, you won't be able to cast a ballot the next day. You'd renew it and choke down the $20 or more fee <a href="http://www.dmv.org/ga-georgia/id-cards.php#Replacing-an-ID-Card-" target="_hplink">for the replacement</a>, but the documents you need to present are in the moving truck. An election official informs you that you can fill out a provision ballot on Election Day. To <a href="http://sos.georgia.gov/gaphotoid/3679BasicVotingInfo_printer final.pdf" target="_hplink">verify that ballot</a>, you'll have two days afterward to present appropriate photo ID at your county registrar's office. Either you're telling the moving company to drive twice the speed limit for the next 48 hours straight, or you're accepting your disenfranchisement. <em>(Photo: AP)</em>