July 25, 2013 4:52 pm

Obama administration presses Texas over Voting Rights Act

The Obama administration is trying to force Texas to get federal government approval for any changes to its voting laws, its first attempt to counteract a historic Supreme Court decision overturning a key component of a civil rights law.

The announcement, by Eric Holder, attorney-general, tees up another stand-off between the Republican-led Lone Star state, which is already suspicious of “big government”, and its nemesis.

Citing continuing “evidence of intentional racial discrimination”, Mr Holder said that the justice department believed that Texas should still be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices, even though the Supreme Court scrapped that process last month.

“This is the department’s first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last,” Mr Holder said at a National Urban League conference on Thursday, referring to the Supreme Court ruling.

In a decision that was sharply criticised by President Barack Obama and African-American groups, the Supreme Court last month declared that Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, designed to stop states with a history of racism from discriminating against voters, was unconstitutional.

Section 5 set out a “preclearance” requirement under which the federal government had to approve any changes to voting rules and procedures in nine states, including Texas, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.

Texas immediately vowed to activate its controversial voter ID law, requiring people voting in person to show certain forms of government-issued identification instead of the usual voter registration cards, which was blocked by the justice department during last year’s elections.

The Texas legislature said it would stamp out voter fraud, but critics said it was aimed at keeping out Hispanics and poorer voters who are less likely to have drivers’ licences, as well as groups more likely to vote Democrat.

Soon after Mr Holder’s announcement on Thursday, Greg Abbott, Texas’s attorney-general, tweeted: “I’ll fight #Obama’s effort to control our elections & I’ll fight against cheating at ballot box.”

Mr Holder, in his speech to the mainly African-American organisation, said that although preclearance originated during the civil rights movement after black voters were routinely denied access to polling stations, “the conduct that it was intended to address continues to this day”.

“Preclearance has proven to be an effective mechanism that puts on hold any new voting changes until they have been subjected to a fair, and thorough, review,” he said.

The Voting Rights Act was used repeatedly last year to block changes in states, mainly in the south, that were trying to introduce strict new laws requiring voters to produce photo ID.

“Just last year, a federal court noted the ‘vital function’ the Voting Rights Act played in protecting African-American voters who would have been disproportionately impacted by a photo ID law in South Carolina,” Mr Holder said.

He also noted that another court cited the Voting Rights Act in blocking a Texas plan to redraw congressional districts in a way that would have discriminated against Hispanic voters.

“Although mandated by the constitution, voting rights are not always guaranteed – in practice – without robust enforcement,” Mr Holder said.

He had already directed the justice department’s civil rights division to shift resources to enforcing a number of federal voting laws not affected by the Supreme Court’s decision – including the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act, prohibiting voting discrimination based on race, colour, or language.

But on Thursday he said that he would also ask a federal court in Texas to subject the state to a preclearance regime similar to the one required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

“This request to ‘bail in’ the state – and require it to obtain ‘preapproval’ from either the department or a federal court before implementing future voting changes – is available under the Voting Rights Act when intentional voting discrimination is found,” he said.

There was evidence of intentional racial discrimination with the redistricting case, he said.

Analysts said Texas would push back strongly against the proposed measures, sparking another long legal wrangle.

Mr Abbott, who has made his name as a firebrand attorney-general, is the frontrunner to succeed governor Rick Perry, who has said he will not seek re-election in 2014 and is instead expected to make another tilt at the Republican presidential nomination.

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