-By Charlie Savage
December 13, 2011- AUSTIN, Tex. — 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.