By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/25/2011 7:30:59 PM ET 2011-08-25T23:30:59

Opening up a new front in its legal battles with the Obama administration, the state of Arizona on Thursday challenged the federal Voting Rights Act, prompting a swift response from Attorney General Eric Holder.

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"The Voting Rights Act plays a vital role in our society by ensuring that every American has the right to vote and to have that vote counted. The Department of Justice will vigorously defend the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act in this case, as it has done successfully in the past," Holder said.

Arizona is challenging the law's requirement that the state seek Justice Department approval for any changes in how elections are conducted. Many states are subject to the law's pre-clearance requirement, generally to remedy past restrictions that discouraged minority voting.

"Arizona is still penalized for archaic violations that were corrected with the implementation of bilingual ballots prior to the 1974 elections," said the state's Attorney General Tom Horne. He noted that in 1974, Arizona became the second state to elect a Hispanic governor.

The state's lawsuit claims the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional, Horne said, "because it suspects all changes to state election law, however innocuous, until pre-clearance is given by the federal government."

The state objects to seeking federal approval to dissolve school districts that have no students and annex them to adjoining districts. "A statute as innocuous as this has to go through an approval process with the Justice Department. Such laws cannot be justified by any power delegated to the federal government by the Constitution," says the state's lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court in Washington, DC.

Vowing to fight the challenge, Holder said the provisions challenged in this case, including the pre-clearance requirement, "were reauthorized by Congress in 2006 with overwhelming and bipartisan support. The Justice Department will continue to enforce the Voting Rights Act, including each of the provisions challenged today," he said.

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