Congressional Republicans lashed out at Attorney General Eric Holder last week over the Justice Department’s rejection of voter photo identification laws in South Carolina and Texas and for ordering Florida to halt purging its voter rolls.
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday, Holder heard from Republican after Republican who called him everything but a child of God as they voiced support for an array of new voter-access laws passed in more than a dozen GOP-controlled states in time for November’s presidential election.
Republicans claim that the new laws are needed to protect against voter fraud even though studies over years have shown that such fraud is miniscule. Democrats, civil rights and voting rights advocates say the new laws are naked attempts to suppress the votes of blacks, Hispanics, and other groups that tend to vote for Democratic candidates.
As part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Justice Department is empowered to review voting law changes in 16 mostly Southern states before those states can officially implement the changes. The department determined that photo ID laws in South Carolina and Texas were discriminatory. Both states have appealed the decision in U.S. District Court.
“The (Obama) administration’s actions aren’t just wrong,” Judiciary Committee Lamar Smith (R-Texas), hissed at Holder. “They are arrogant, undemocratic, and an insult to the rule of law. The administration’s disregard for the Constitution and rule of law not only undermines our democracy, it threatens our national security.”
Holder gave as good as he got, telling his inquisitors that the laws being challenged by the Justice Department “have an impact on a person’s ability to exercise that most fundamental of constitutional rights, and that is the right to vote.”
Undeterred, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) criticized Holder and his department for telling Florida to stop purging voters from its rolls. Republican Gov. Rick Scott ordered election officials in the Sunshine State to strike non-citizens from the rolls. But an investigation by The Miami Herald found that the majority of people being purged were Hispanics. Democratic and Independent voters were most likely to be purged while non-Hispanic Republicans were least likely.
Despite the fact that a 91-year-old white World War II veteran born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and living in Florida’s Broward County and other voter-eligible people were among nearly 185,000 people on the state’s purge list, Sensenbrenner insisted to Holder that non-citizens voting in Florida and elsewhere is a huge problem.
“And any ineligible or fraudulent voter who has a ballot placed in the same ballot box as hundreds of legitimate voters ends up diluting the votes of the legitimate voters,” Sensenbrenner said. “And the federal law is very clear on that.”
Holder said that the depths of voter fraud claimed by advocates of the new voter-access laws are exaggerated.
“We do not see that to the proportions that people have said in an attempt to justify this photo ID laws,” he said. “All of the time, I think the empirical and neutral evidence shows that the questions of vote fraud do not exist to the extent” claimed by supporters of the new laws.
Since last year, 15 mostly Republican-controlled states have passed new voter laws that include requiring people to show government-sanctioned photo ID; placing restrictions or limits on voter registration drives by third-party groups like the League of Women Voters and the NAACP; shortening or eliminating early voting periods; ending same-day voter registration; and rescinding the voting rights of convicted felons who’ve served their time.
A study last year by the Brenan Center for Justice at New York University found that the new laws could restrict voting access to 5 million people, most of them minorities. The NAACP estimates that 25 percent of blacks in this country don’t have the proper documentation to meet ID requirements in some states compared to 11 percent of the overall population.
The new laws could have a huge impact on the race between President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The states that have approved new voting laws account for 171 electoral votes this year, 63 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
However, Judiciary Committee Republicans insisted last Thursday that the new laws are about protecting the sanctity of the vote, not election-year politics.
“Instead of acting to prevent voter fraud, the Department of Justice has challenged common sense voter ID laws that require voters to identify themselves before they are allowed to vote,” Smith said.
Such lines compelled Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to chastise his Republican colleagues on the committee.
“Let me start by just expressing my disappointment that some of my colleagues are spending so much time advancing the notion that we should be disqualifying people from exercising the most basic right that they have in our democracy, the right to vote,” said Watt, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “And that this Judiciary Committee in which these arguments are being advanced, it’s just disappointing to me.”