Carl Leubsdorf: Voting Rights fight just beginning

August 2, 2013 

Just hours after the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott triumphantly announced the state would reinstate the restrictive voter identification law that the Justice Department had blocked from taking effect.

Soon afterward, the state Legislature passed -- and the governor signed -- the latest version of a congressional redistricting plan that Hispanics and other minorities have challenged as discriminatory.

In North Carolina, meanwhile, the court decision was a signal for the Republican-controlled Legislature to press ahead with a voter ID law that may be even more restrictive than Texas', limiting early voting and a program encouraging high school students to register. Action may come from other states too.

Despite their rush, however, this fight is hardly over. Hopefully, it's just beginning.

That's because, when the court barred the provision requiring nine states, including Texas, to get preclearance of voter law changes, it stressed that "our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting" and the process by which states with a history of discrimination must submit to federal oversight.

And last week, Attorney General Eric Holder made clear that elimination of the preclearance provision won't let Texas and other states off the hook when they pass discriminatory voting measures.

"Based on the evidence of intentional racial discrimination that was presented last year in the redistricting case, Texas v. Holder -- as well as the history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities that the Supreme Court itself has recognized -- we believe that the State of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices," Holder told the National Urban League's annual conference.

He vowed that the Justice Department's first follow-up step -- intervention in the Texas redistricting case in a San Antonio federal court -- "will not be our last." Action challenging the state's voter ID law is expected shortly.

This reaction by the Obama administration's Justice Department marks a welcome step to reinforce the need for fairness in voting, but it's hardly surprising. After all, this is the first time since the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965 that Democrats have controlled the Justice Department during the period that states were redistricting congressional and legislative seats from the most recent census.

And with Republicans in many states seemingly determined to pass measures they claim are aimed at non-existing voter fraud but in reality are designed to restrict the turnout of groups that historically vote Democratic, federal action is a necessity.

In Texas, both the redistricting and voter ID laws seem clearly designed to maintain Republican control by restricting the growing voter clout of the state's burgeoning Hispanic population. State-submitted data showed that Hispanics were far less likely to have the identification card required to vote in the absence of a driver's license, military identification or gun permit.

And in North Carolina, the proportion of African-Americans is 50 percent higher in the high schools where early voter registration will no longer be encouraged than in the overall population.

Predictably, most top Republicans charged that this was all politics. Abbott, who is running for governor, called it "political theater," and Sen. John Cornyn said the administration was "advancing a political agenda."

But Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who helped pass the last renewal of the Voting Rights Act and knows more about the issue than most members of Congress, told The Hill newspaper that the Justice Department's action was "consistent" with the act. He warned that "increased litigation will be one of the major consequences of the court's decision" to eliminate the preclearance provision.

Sensenbrenner said he hopes Congress will pass an updated formula as the court requested. But, he added, "it's going to be much more difficult" than when the law was renewed in 2006. In fact, given congressional partisanship and the fact that Republicans seem convinced the law mainly helps Democrats, hopes of doing so may prove impossible.

That makes Holder's action even more important in taking on the renewed threats that raise an old problem seemingly settled a half-century ago.

Carl P. Leubsdorf, Dallas Morning News; carl.p.leubsdorfgmail.com.

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