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The nation’s top lawman and top black elected officials warned black clergy leaders Wednesday that civil rights gains made in the 1960s are under siege from a rash of new voting laws approved by some states and by legal challenges by states chafing under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


Attorney General Eric Holder told a special meeting of the Conference of National Black Churches convened in Washington by the Congressional Black Caucus that “despite our nation’s long tradition of extending voting rights – to non-property owners and women, to people of color and Native Americans, and to younger Americans – today, a growing number of our fellow citizens are worried about the same disparities, divisions, and problems that – nearly five decades ago – so many fought to address.”


“In my travels across this country, I’ve heard a consistent drumbeat of concern from citizens, who – often for the first time in their lives – now have reason to believe that we are failing to live up to one of our nation’s most noble ideals; and that some of the achievements that defined the civil rights movement now hang in the balance,” Holder told the black clergy leaders.


Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a CBC member from North Carolina, was more direct. “There is a right-wing conspiracy that is alive and well in this country that’s trying to take us back to 1900 and even before,” he said. “What they want to do is not take away the right to vote, but if black voter participation can be diminished even by 10 percent, it will make that critical difference all across the country.”


Butterfield pointed out that President Barack Obama defeated Republican presidential nominee John McCain by some 14,000 votes in North Carolina in 2008. Had the Tar Heel state had laws that required people to have government-approved photo identification in order to register or vote, Obama would have probably lost that state and maybe the election, he said.


At least 15 mostly Republican-controlled states have passed new voting-access laws since last year that include requiring people to show a government-sanctioned photo ID. Other changes adopted or under consideration by states include limiting voter-registration drives by third-party groups like the NAACP or League of Women Voters; shortening or eliminating early voting periods; halting same-day voter registration; and rescinding the voting rights of convicted felons who’ve completed their prison sentences.


Advocates for the new laws say they’re needed to protect against voter fraud – though studies over the years have shown that such fraud is nearly non-existent – and to prevent illegal immigrants from casting ballots.


Opponents of the laws say they are GOP attempts to suppress the votes of black, Hispanic, young and elderly voters – the main bloc of the Democratic Party. Only one Democratic-held state, Rhode Island, has approved new voting laws.


A study released last year by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice 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 possess the proper documentation to meet ID requirements in some states compared to 11 percent for the overall population.


States that have embraced new voting laws account for 171 electoral votes this year, 63 percent of the 270 electoral votes need to win the presidency, according to the Brennan Center study. Some states that have approved new laws – Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and recently Virginia – are expected to be highly-contested states for Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.


The Justice Department rejected photo ID laws in South Carolina and Texas as discriminatory. The department made the determinations under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which requires 16 mostly Southern states with histories of discrimination to get pre-clearance before implementing new voter access laws.


South Carolina and Texas are appealing the determination to a U.S. District Court in Washington.


“This is the information that we need to have,” said The Rev. Milton C. Williams, Jr., of the Episcopal Parish of  St. Monica and St. James Episcopal Church in Washington after hearing Holder, CBC members and a panel of voting law experts explain the 2012 electoral landscape. “The challenge is to make sure it gets down to the grass roots.”


Foes of the new laws aren’t the only one ones who’ve been huddling and discussing strategy. Members of True the Vote, a Texas Tea Party-created group that hopes to dispatch an army of volunteers to monitor the polls on November’s Election Day, held its summit in Houston two weeks ago.


There, they largely accused new voting law opponents of playing the race card to stir up unwarranted fear about the changes – and got some political star power to state their case. Former Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a former CBC member who delivered a nominating speech for Obama at the 2008 Democratic convention and unsuccessfully ran for governor of Alabama in 2010, told True the Vote supporters that there’s nothing to fear about the new laws.


“This little thing in my hand is a driver’s license,” Davis told the group. “This is not a billy club, this is not a fire hose, this is not Jim Crow, though some people say it is.”


Not so coincidentally, Davis, the only black Democrat in Congress who voted against the health care law, announced on Tuesday that he’s switching to the Republican Party and considering running again for the House of Representatives – this time as a Virginia resident.


Meanwhile, Holder talking voting laws and civil rights to black ministers proved too much for Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. The conservative network and radio talk show host went ballistic over the attorney general’s remarks.


“And these people that Holder says are hearing a consistent drumbeat of concern for the first time in their lives, they have reason to believe that people don’t want them to vote – who are these people that have this fear, and why do they have this fear?” Limbaugh said on his broadcast Wednesday. “Could it be that they’ve been told a pack of lies by the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton or other civil rights leaders? Who is it that’s scaring them?”


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