Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday entered the turbulent political waters of voting rights, signaling that the Justice Department would be aggressive in reviewing new voting laws that civil rights advocates say will dampen minority participation in next year’s elections.
Declaring in a speech that protecting ballot access for all eligible voters “must be viewed not only as a legal issue but as a moral imperative,” Mr. Holder urged Americans to “call on our political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success and, instead, achieve success by appealing to more voters.”
The speech by Mr. Holder could inflame a smoldering partisan dispute over race and ballot access as the 2012 campaign cycle intensifies. It comes as the Justice Department’s civil rights division is scrutinizing a series of new state voting laws that were enacted — largely by Republican officials — in the name of fighting fraud.
Mr. Holder spoke here at the presidential library of Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The act enables the civil rights division to object to election laws and practices on the grounds that they would disproportionately deter minority groups from voting — even if there is no evidence of discriminatory intent — and to go to court to block states from putting the laws in place.
Mr. Holder also laid out a case for replacing the “antiquated” voter registration system by automatically registering all eligible voters; for barring state legislators from gerrymandering their own districts, and for creating a federal statute prohibiting the dissemination of fraudulent information to deceive people into not voting.
His remarks came against the backdrop of a huge turnout of young and minority voters in the 2008 election that helped propel President Obama to victory. In the 2010 election, when voting by such groups dropped off and enthusiasm among more conservative groups surged, Republicans won sweeping victories, winning or expanding control of many state legislatures and governorships.
This year, more than a dozen states enacted new voting restrictions. For example, eight — Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin — imposed new laws requiring voters to present state-issued photo identification cards. Previously voters were able to use other forms of identification, like bank statements, utility bills and Social Security cards.
Proponents of such restrictions — mostly Republicans — say they are necessary to prevent voter fraud that could cancel out the choices of legitimate participants. Opponents — mostly Democrats — say there is no evidence of meaningful levels of fraud and contend that the measures are a veiled effort to suppress participation by hundreds of thousands of eligible voters who lack a driver’s license.
Mr. Holder quoted with approval a speech by Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and longtime civil rights activist, who recently declared that voting rights were “under attack” in “a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.”
The attorney general noted that the Justice Department is reviewing the new laws in South Carolina and Texas requiring voters to present photo ID cards. It has sought information from the states about the demographic breakdown of eligible voters who do not have such identification to see whether the rule would disproportionately deter minorities from voting.
Mr. Holder also singled out litigation with Florida over a new state law restricting the availability of early voting — including banning it on the Sunday before Election Day, when black churches traditionally follow services with get-out-the-vote efforts. It also imposed new rules on groups that conduct voter registration drives, including fining them whenever workers do not turn in registration forms within 48 hours. In response, the League of Women Voters has stopped registering new voters in Florida.
“Although I cannot go into detail about the ongoing review of these and other state-law changes, I can assure you that it will be thorough — and it will be fair,” he said.
In a question period, Mr. Holder added that he was “concerned about some of the legislation passed recently” that he said tended “to restrict in ways that are subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, the ability of the American people to cast their ballots.”
Mr. Holder has been a popular target for Republicans, most recently because of a disputed gun-trafficking investigation called Fast and Furious, and his speech seemed likely to heighten partisan frictions. A group of protesters rallied outside the library on Tuesday afternoon, and several dozen greeted his arrival with signs supporting voter identification laws or urging him to resign.
Catherine Engelbrecht, who said she organized the rally, faulted Mr. Holder for taking what she called divisive tactics of suggesting that “photo voter ID” laws are an effort to “suppress” eligible voters. She said such laws are necessary to guard against “real problems with the integrity of the elections process.”
Such problems, Ms. Engelbrecht said, included people showing up at polls without any identification, or showing up with multiple voter registration cards in different names, and being allowed to vote; she said she had not witnessed such irregularities during her own service as a volunteer at polling places, but had heard about them happening from other poll watchers.
In 2008, the Supreme Court upheld an Indiana law requiring voters to present photo ID cards, ruling that the state’s interest in preventing fraud outweighed the burdens the law placed on voters. That case, however, was based on the Constitution’s equal-protection clause and did not address the different standards imposed by the Voting Rights Act.
In a 2009 case involving a Texas water board, the Supreme Court said that a key section of the Voting Rights Act, despite its “undeniable” historic importance, “now raises serious constitutional concerns” because it intrudes on states’ rights. However, it declined to strike down the law.
There are five pending lawsuits asking the court to strike the law down. But Mr. Holder argued that the protections were still necessary — pointing, among other things, to a Texas redistricting plan that a court ruled discriminated against Hispanic voters. His reference prompted applause in the packed auditorium.
John A. Payton, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, one of several rights group leaders who attended Mr. Holder’s speech, said it was “really important that he bring the powers that he has to bear on this challenge to our democracy,” contending that “we have not seen this much action that will have the effect of limiting people’s ability to vote” since the Voting Rights Act was signed.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 13, 2011
A previous version of this article misstated when Robert Driscoll worked for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division; it was in the administration of George W. Bush, not Ronald Reagan’s. (And a previous correction misstated that it was the elder George Bush’s administration.)
This article, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.