THE BLOG
10/10/2014 09:45 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

A Breakthrough in the Discussion Around Voting Restrictions

On Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office -- a nonpartisan investigative agency -- released a study showing that, of the states it examined, those that had enacted restrictive voter identification laws experienced sharper reductions in election turnout than those that did not. The study also noted that those reductions came disproportionately from African Americans and young people.

This data underscores what is already clear from years of experience with unwarranted and obstructive voter ID laws -- that restrictions on voting cause a greater burden on African Americans, Latinos, and younger voters, and that communities of color are disproportionately at risk of being shut out of the democratic process and denied their fundamental rights.

Today's Department of Justice is committed to ensuring access to the ballot box for every eligible citizen. Before a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Shelby County v. Holder, the Department used that Act to block efforts in Texas and Florida that would have disproportionately disenfranchised citizens of color in those states. We continue to use all available tools to defend the voting rights of our men and women in uniform. And we have fought to ensure accessible polling places throughout Indian Country and Alaska Native communities.

Particularly in the days after Shelby County, however, jurisdictions have enacted restrictive, discriminatory, and clearly unnecessary voter ID laws that disproportionately prevent some populations from casting their ballots. These restrictions are often justified as attempts to curb an epidemic of voter fraud. But while that epidemic has never actually been shown to exist, the detrimental effects of voter ID laws are all too real.

Just yesterday, in Texas, a federal district court ruled in favor of the Justice Department's lawsuit against the state's voter ID law, affirming that the law unfairly and unnecessarily restricts access to the franchise. The court found that the law creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, was enacted with discriminatory intent, and has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Latinos and African Americans. The ruling vindicated the Department's approach to aggressively enforcing Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

There is simply no good reason to reduce voting access -- and individuals who seek to enact these laws should be called upon to justify their actions. In this country, no matter an individual's background or circumstance; no matter who occupies the White House; and no matter who serves as Attorney General of the United States, every eligible citizen must have free and fair access to the franchise. Any move to the contrary is a retreat from our proud history, an affront to our dearest values, and an offense against generations of Americans who have marched, fought, and too often died to advance their country's sacred promise of equal rights for all.

In a nation governed by the people, for the people, progress can only come through the engagement of all our citizens, under the rights afforded by our most fundamental laws and our highest ideals. And we at the Department of Justice will never stop working to defend what President Lyndon Johnson once called the "most basic" right of American citizenship; to honor and extend the advancements of our forebears; and to build the more just and inclusive society that all Americans deserve.

The GAO's nonpartisan report could represent a breakthrough in the discussion around voting restrictions imposed in states across the country. It can no longer be disputed as mere assertion that voter ID laws are obstacles to citizens who wish to exercise their fundamental right to vote; as this report shows, it is clearly a fact. This information should help us move past the ideological arguments that too often dominate the debate on these voting laws, and understand them for what they really are.

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Eric H. Holder, Jr., is the Attorney General of the United States