AUSTIN, Texas – Stricter voter identification laws, redrawn political maps fortifying Republican majorities, reducing early voting: States with GOP strongholds intensified these efforts under President Barack Obama and proclaimed victory at the Supreme Court.
Now the Obama administration is signaling plans to drag some of these mostly Southern states with histories of minority discrimination into rematches after the high court knocked down a major piece of the Voting Rights Act.
First up is Texas, which rushed to enact a tough voter ID law and new redistricting maps after the justices’ 5-4 ruling last month. North Carolina is considered to be another possible target of the administration, and officials in Alabama are also digging their heels in for another possible round with the Justice Department.
Other states also are watching closely.
“You can imagine a very aggressive Justice Department trying to get the bar as low as possible and demanding that states be bailed in” back under former voting rights protections, said Rebecca Green, co-director of the election law program at the College of William & Mary.
Predictions that North Carolina is on deck grew late Thursday after its Legislature sent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory sweeping voting law changes, including the end of a popular program that registers high school students to vote in advance of their 18th birthday.
There’s also a strict voter ID measure, slashing early voting by a week and the elimination of same-day registration.
State elections statistics show black voters use early voting in heavy numbers and that more than 300,000 of the state’s residents don’t have a driver’s license, many of them poor and elderly.
North Carolina conservatives call the moves voter integrity safeguards and were confident they will stand.
“I think what we’ve seen over the past several years is the Obama administration politicize the voting rights section in ways we’ve never seen before,” said North Carolina state Sen. Phil Berger, the top Republican in the chamber. “I do not think they are a nonpartisan or neutral arbiter.”
North Carolina gave final approval to the measures only hours after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced he will ask a federal court to tether Texas back to provisions that require permission to change voting laws.
Known as preclearance, the process had been mandatory in all or parts of 15 mostly Southern states with a history of discrimination, until the Supreme Court decision last month wiped out the preapproval.
Holder called the decision flawed and said Thursday he will use “every tool at our disposal” in mounting a new fight over voter protection.
He did not name other states in the sights of the Justice Department but vowed that Texas “will not be our last.”
Election law experts say Texas presents the easiest – but by no means assured – path for the administration because a Washington federal court last year found the state to have engaged in intentional discrimination.
One example cited by judges was black congressional members in Texas having economic drivers such as sporting arenas freshly carved out of their districts, while “no such surgery” was performed on those belonging to white incumbents.
That finding makes it easier to apply Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, a tactic rarely employed because the same effect was formerly achieved through the more muscular section of the law that is now eliminated. Holder has built his case against Texas around Section 3.
Green said the Justice Department faces a tougher road in other states without what amounts to “a smoking gun,” such as judicial findings of intentional discrimination. She pointed toward North Carolina, where she said an argument could be made that its new election laws were driven not by race but partisanship, which is not protected under the Voting Rights Act.
Trey Martinez Fischer, a Texas Democratic state representative and chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus that sued the state over Republican-drawn voting maps, said the Justice Department has a “poster case” for success in going after Texas.
Fischer said his caucus huddled with Obama administration officials before launching this new battle.
“The administration, when they reached out to us, they were like, ‘Hey man, we’re scouring the country and you are the only (ones) who have been fighting,’” Fischer said.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott accused the administration of plotting with Texas Democrats with an eye on the 2014 elections, though Republicans are expected to keep control of the Statehouse. Abbott, who is running to replace Gov. Rick Perry, said findings of discrimination by federal judges in Washington last year were rendered overruled by the Supreme Court decision.
“I believe the Obama administration is trying to put Texas elections under their thumb,” Abbott said. “It seems they are sowing racial divide as opposed to trying to assist unity.”
In Alabama, home of the Shelby County challenge that struck down the preclearance provisions, state Attorney General Luther Strange characterized the new effort as Holder dismissing the racial progress made by his and other states the past 50 years. Alabama has a new photo ID law that takes effect in the 2014 elections. It passed before the Shelby County ruling but had not been submitted to the Justice Department for review when the Supreme Court made its decision.
“This is just one more instance of the Obama administration and Eric Holder ignoring our system of checks and balances when it doesn’t get its desired result,” Strange said.