Holder urges Congress to pass new voting protections

With congressional committees poised to hold hearings this week on revisions to the Voting Rights Act in the wake of last month’s Supreme Court ruling striking down a section of the law, Attorney General Eric Holder told the NAACP convention in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday that Congress has “a rare and historic opportunity” to pass legislation “restoring, and even strengthening modern voting protections.”

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Orlando on July 16, 2013. David Manning / REUTERS

Holder also told the convention that he had directed his subordinates in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department “to shift resources to the enforcement of Voting Rights Act provisions that were not affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling – including Section 2, which prohibits voting discrimination based on race, color, or language – in addition to other federal voting rights laws.”

As Holder said, the high court’s ruling had no effect on Section 2 of the law which can be used to challenge voting procedures in any jurisdiction in of the country – not just in the states, mostly in the South, that had been covered by the part of the law which the court struck down last month.

In its ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, the court, in a 5 to 4 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, held that Section 4 of the law, the formula determining which jurisdictions had to seek Justice Department pre-approval or “pre-clearance” for changes in voting procedures, was unconstitutional because it “is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices.”

In his NAACP speech, Holder called the Shelby County ruling “a deeply disappointing and flawed decision” which had “dealt a serious setback to the cause of voting rights.”

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He said that pre-clearance had, even in recent months, “served as a potent tool for addressing inequities in our elections systems. And it proved the effectiveness of a legal mechanism that puts on hold any new voting changes until they have been subjected to a fair, and thorough, review.”

For example, Holder said, preclearance had protected black voters “who would have been disproportionately impacted by a photo ID law in South Carolina. Because of the Department’s engagement with the state during the administrative review and later litigation, South Carolina officials changed how their new voting statute will be implemented in future elections – to eliminate what would otherwise have been a dramatic discriminatory effect.”

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the House Republican who led the effort to extend section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, will testify. Among the questions Congress faces if it devises a new formula to replace the invalidated Section 4 are: What voting data would a new formula be based on? Would the new formula be written in a geographically-neutral way that did not focus on certain Southern states, as the old formula did?