Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a long-anticipated voting rights speech on Tuesday night, marking an important turning point. Holder’s speech is the first public acknowledgment by the United States Justice Department that voting rights in this country are “under attack” and revealed a firmer intention from the DOJ to enforce and defend the voting laws it has at its disposal. It’s vitally important that the nation is finally confronting the fact that its core democratic institutions have been permanently weakened by politicians grasping at short-term, short-sighted partisan gains.
For months, Republican-led state legislatures around the country have been pushing for and enacting Voter Identification legislation designed to make it harder for citizens to vote. These Voter ID bills are usually justified under a banner of voter fraud, which, studies have shown, is virtually nonexistent. As Holder acknowledged, the more nefarious fraud plaguing our electoral politics are the misinformation campaigns that discourage eligible voters from going out to vote.
The main focus of Holder’s speech was Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which provides the DOJ with the authority to challenge laws that negatively affect voting in places with a history of discrimination. The DOJ is currently deliberating whether or not to strike down Voter ID laws in several states -- including South Carolina and Texas -- that have imposed new photo identification requirements as an impediment to voting.
Apart from these concerns, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is actually under a separate assault from counties and states hoping to evade review. And Holder made it especially clear that the Department intends to defend the bill’s constitutionality and its practical importance in face of current efforts to undermine the franchise, when he said, “[t]o those who argue that Section 5 is no longer necessary – these and other examples are proof that we still need this critical tool to combat discrimination and safeguard the right to vote.”
Holder also called attention to the DOJ’s recent enforcement work under the “Motor Voter” law, also known as the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The NVRA requires states to provide voter registrations at DMV offices and public assistance agencies. Given that a number of pundits and politicians have gone so far as to suggest that poor people should not be permitted to vote, there is a growing need to confront this issue head on. The right to vote is a fundamental right, and it cannot be bartered away by the very politicians it has helped propel into office.
Like the NVRA work that Demos has done, which has led to over 1,000,000 new voters being registered, the DOJ’s efforts to increase registrations by filing lawsuits under the NVRA has been remarkably successful. As Holder noted, “after filing a lawsuit in Rhode Island, we reached an agreement with state agencies that resulted in more voters being registered in the first full month after our lawsuit than in the entire previous two-year reporting period.” The NVRA offers one of the clearest pathways to expanding the vote at the very time far too many politicians are striving to take it away.
I have written here before that the failure to preserve democratic institutions threatens the broader legitimacy of our political system, and it is ultimately weak democratic institutions that drive people onto the streets. While the United States has supported popular uprisings and democratic developments around the world, the legitimacy of its own democratic cannot be taken for granted. As Eric Holder said toward the end of his speech:
Our nation has worked, and even fought, to help people around the world establish such a process – most recently during the wave of civil rights uprisings known as the Arab Spring. Here at home, honoring our democracy demands that we remove any and all barriers to voting – a goal that all American citizens of all political backgrounds must share.