The U.S. Department of Justice will take on Texas in the first major voting rights enforcement action since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that gutted a key anti-discrimination provision of the historic law.
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced today that the Justice Department would use another section of the Voting Rights Act to ask a federal judge to "bail in" Texas to a requirement called preclearance. The move, if successful, would require Texas to seek Justice Department or judicial approve before making certain electoral changes.
"This is the Department's first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last," Holder said at the National Urban League annual conference in Philadelphia this morning. "Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the Court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law's remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected."
The Supreme Court in its 5-4 decision voided Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which contains the formula used to determine when a state or local jurisdiction warrants special scrutiny for electoral changes. That was one of the most efficient tools for the Justice Department’s fight against discrimination at the polls, voting rights law experts said.
But another section of the act, Section 3, allows the department to try to convince a judge to order a jurisdiction to submit itself to preclearance. To do so, the Justice Department would again need resources to build a case that proves purposeful discrimination.
Arkansas and New Mexico were among the jurisdictions "bailed in" at one time. William Yeomans, a former acting assistant attorney general and now a professor at American University Washington College of Law, has said: "It's not easy."
Holder acknowledged that challenge today. “My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination wherever it is found,” Holder said. “But let me be very clear: these remaining tools are no substitute for legislation that must fill the void left by the Supreme Court’s decision.”
Holder said he would base the action 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."
Immediately following the Shelby County ruling, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has clashed with the Justice Department over electoral matters, announced plans to move forward with electoral changes the federal government had blocked under the Voting Rights Act.
"With today's decision, the state's voter ID law will take effect immediately," Abbott said at the time. "Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government."