Eric Holder, the head of the U.S. Department of Justice, told a council of African American church leaders on May 30 that African Americans’ voting rights under attack nationwide, with federal lawsuits in at least a dozen state laws that could weaken — or block — minority access to the ballot box this fall.
Forty-seven years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, the twin factors of lingering bias and systematic assaults from the right, Holder said, means that “for the first time in our [lifetimes], we are failing to live up to one of our most noble ideals” — equal access to the right to vote.
The brief speech was a call to arms for the black church, which since the days of the civil rights movement has been active in fighting for equal voting right for minorities. Holder, who was warmly received by the audience, told them his office is “aggressively” taking on the task of protecting that right, including challenging several state lawsuits that would overturn key provisions of the Voting Rights Act involving redistricting in Southern states and strict new voter ID laws that could keep minorities, the elderly and young people of all races from casting ballots in the 2012 election — which analysts expect will be decided by a narrow margin.
Ensuring that everyone who is qualified can vote “is one of our highest priorities,” Holder told the council, adding that during his watch the Justice Department has taken on more than 100 cases involving voting within the past year, “a record number.” Since President Bush re-authorized the Section 5 provision of the Voting Rights Act, which requires some Southern states to get federal approval before making broad changes to laws involving voting, “it has consistently come under attack by those who say it is no longer needed.”
Holder also rejected conservatives’ contention that making it easier to vote invites fraud, a key argument in calling for tougher voter ID laws. Recalling that protesters and faith leaders faced violence and death to gain that right during the 1960s, Holder called on black churches to mobilize as an ally of the Justice Department, informing the larger community and pushing back against restrictive proposals.
“We have to honor the generations that took extraordinary risks” to guarantee equal access to the polls, Holder said. The nation has made tremendous progress, he added, but “this fight must go on.”