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Eric Holder's fight for voting rights

It was no accident that protecting access to the ballot was the first issue the attorney general mentioned when listing his achievements in office.

Announcing his plans to step down Thursday at a White House event, Attorney General Eric Holder listed his accomplishments in office.

“Over the last six years,” Holder began “our administration has made historic gains in realizing the principles of the founding documents, and fought to protect the most sacred of American rights: the right to vote.”

It was no accident that voting rights was the first issue the attorney general mentioned—despite a tenure that also has included far-reaching criminal justice reform and crucial support for marriage equality, among other achievements. In both words and actions, Holder has consistently put the fight against racial discrimination in voting front and center in the Justice Department’s work. And that commitment has been key in bolstering the resistance to the Republican-led drive for voting restrictions.

"I actually screamed in my car when I heard" that Holder was stepping down, said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, which has brought several voting rights cases alongside Holder's Justice Department. "I was upset, because he has meant so much to the civil rights community and to our country." 

Holder was never shy about using the bully pulpit of his office to denounce efforts to block access to the ballot box—often in language that evoked the righteous crusade of the civil rights era. He labeled Texas’s strict voter ID law a “poll tax”, and has called interfering with the right to vote “a moral failing" that transcends political partisanship.

And during President Obama’s first term, Holder’s Justice Department used Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) to block Texas’s ID law and to soften South Carolina’s, as well as stopping cuts to early voting in Florida.

But it was his response to the darkest moment for voting rights in half a century that cemented his legacy. In June of last year, the Supreme Court neutered Section 5—the Voting Rights Act’s strongest provision— in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling threatened to turn the landmark civil rights law into a virtual dead letter.

In response, the attorney general announced that he planned to shift resources toward the most important remaining plank of the law, Section 2. Soon after, DoJ filed Section 2 cases against two of the most restrictive measures of recent years—the Texas ID law, which went back into effect after Shelby, and North Carolina’s sweeping voting law. Holder’s lawyers also filed supportive briefs in cases challenging Wisconsin’s ID law and Ohio’s cuts to early voting.

“We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights,” Holder said upon filing the Texas lawsuit. ”The Department will take action against jurisdictions that attempt to hinder access to the ballot box, no matter where it occurs.  We will keep fighting aggressively to prevent voter disenfranchisement.”

Section 2 has rarely been used to stop major statewide voting restrictions like voter ID, or cuts to early voting, and many observers saw the cases as long-shots when they were filed. All four of those cases are still before the courts. But voting rights advocates say merely by taking action, Holder expanded the understanding of how the Voting Rights Act can be used, and sent a message about the importance of the issues at stake.

“When DOJ decides to get involved in a voting rights case, it raises the profile,” said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Justice acts as the voice of the federal government in these cases, and also brings a level of national attention to what may otherwise be billed as simply a state-level case.”

Holder also has pressed Congress to strengthen the VRA in response to the Shelby decision—an effort that has so far come to naught, with House Republicans showing little interest in acting.

“We need someone who is going to make sure that the Shelby County case does not mean the end to the Voting Rights Act,” Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project said in discussing Holder’s potential successor.

Earlier this year, Holder called on states to repeal laws that bar millions of ex-felons across the country from voting, calling such laws “not only unnecessary and unjust,” but “counter-productive.”

To the AG, the fight for access to the ballot is about living up to our highest ideals. As he told The New Yorker for a story published earlier this year:

“This comes down, in some ways, to a fundamental question of who we are—who we are as a people. The history of this nation has always been to try to expand the franchise. Whether it’s freed slaves, women, young people, we’ve always found ways to make it easier to vote. We’ve always found ways in which we’ve made the voting process more inclusive. What these folks are intending to do, or certainly the impact of what they’re going to do, is to turn their backs on that history.”