Last week’s ruling by a federal judge striking down Texas’s strict voter ID law shows the wisdom of the Justice Department’s strategy of using the Voting Rights Act to challenge restrictive voting laws, Attorney General Eric Holder told msnbc. And he added that the recent GOP-led assault on voting “hearkens back to a dark time in our history.”
“We’re pleased obviously by the decision by the court to block the state’s voter ID law,” Holder said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We think it’s a vindication of our post-Shelby approach to enforcing voting rights.”
Texas has appealed the ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court last year neutered the system under which certain areas needed federal approval before changing their voting laws, known as Section 5. In response, Holder shifted Justice Department resources toward a different part of the VRA, Section 2, which bars racial discrimination in voting. DoJ challenged the Texas law as well as a restrictive North Carolina voting law under Section 2.
“A lot of questions were raised about our ability to do what we did in Texas, but we decided after Shelby that as a department we were not going to just throw up our hands,” Holder said. “And we pushed ahead by using Section 2 … people said it was going to be more difficult, it was going to be impossible to do.”
Holder, who last month announced plans to step down once a successor is confirmed, called the recent wave of restrictive voting laws in Republican-controlled states “very disheartening,” adding: “This hearkens back to a dark time in our history.”
In her ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos declared the law an unconstitutional poll tax, since it requires people to spend money to obtain the documents they need to get an ID. Back in 2012, Holder used the same term to describe the law.
“President Clinton and I both called it a poll tax,” he said Tuesday, “and it’s heartening to hear that the judge agreed.”
Gonzales Ramos also found that the Texas voter ID law intentionally discriminated on the basis of race, since blacks and Hispanics are much more likely than whites to lack ID and have trouble getting one. That means Texas could potentially be bailed back into the pre-clearance system—something the Justice Department’s lawsuit asked for.
“We’re not presuming anything but we’re hopeful,” Holder said on the issue of bailing Texas back in. “And I think it’s significant that the court did find that the [voter ID law] was enacted with a discriminatory intent.”
The department’s other efforts to use the VRA to stop statewide voting restrictions have so far been a mixed bag. The Supreme Court ordered last week that all of North Carolina’s voting law can go into effect for this election. A full trial is scheduled for 2015.
The justices also greenlighted Ohio’s cuts to early voting—those, too, are scheduled for a trial next year. But they blocked Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law, amid concerns about the short time-frame in which it was to be implemented. The Justice Department had filed supportive briefs in the Ohio and Wisconsin cases.
Holder also praised a bill proposed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) to restore voting rights for some felons, calling it “a good first step.”
“We agree on more things than people would expect,” Holder said of the Kentucky senator, a potential 2016 presidential prospect.
Beyond voting rights, Holder said he had no regrets about his pledge to try the 9/11 suspects in a federal court in New York—a plan that died amid opposition from Congress—suggesting that events had shown he was right.
“All the issues that I was concerned about by putting it in the military system have proven to be real,” Holder said. “I regret that political pressure won out, and the case was not brought into the federal system. Because if the case had been brought into the federal system it would be over by now. And there’s no question that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his confederates would be convicted and probably facing death sentences.”
Asked about New York Times reporter James Risen, who has been the subject of a controversial Justice Department prosecution for reporting leaks of classified information, Holder repeated a pledge he has made before.
“If a reporter is doing that which he or she does as a reporter, no reporter is going to go to jail as long as I am attorney general,” he said. “We decided that perhaps there were some legitimate concerns raised, and we met with members of the media and revamped the way in which we interact with members of the media.”
But he was most passionate on the issue of protecting access to the ballot.
“No matter what follows, this is a legal fight worth waging, because the right to vote is the most fundamental right that we have as Americans,” Holder said. “And I’m simply not going to allow that which makes this country truly exceptional to be compromised by those who are doing these things for political reasons.”