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Obama admin to join voting rights cases in Ohio and Wisconsin

The Obama administration plans to support challenges to Republican-backed voting restrictions in Ohio and Wisconsin, Attorney General Eric Holder said.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during a news conference, July 14, 2014 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during a news conference, July 14, 2014 in Washington, DC.

The Obama administration plans to join lawsuits against Republican-backed voting restrictions in two major swing states, Attorney General Eric Holder has said.

The moves would represent the first time that Holder's Justice Department has intervened against statewide voting laws outside the areas that the Supreme Court freed from federal oversight in last year’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling. They underline the administration’s intention to aggressively protect voting rights across the country, not only in the mostly southern jurisdictions directly affected by Shelby.

"I expect that we are going to be filing in cases that are already in existence in Wisconsin as well as in Ohio," Holder said in an unaired portion of an interview with Pierre Thomas of ABC News, according to a transcript provided by the Justice Department to msnbc. The interview was conducted Friday in London, where Holder was attending meetings about terrorism threats.

"I will use every power that I have, every ability that I have as Attorney General to defend that right to vote."'

Holder called the right to vote "the most basic of all our rights," adding: "I will use every power that I have, every ability that I have as Attorney General to defend that right to vote." 

Earlier this year, Ohio’s Republican legislature passed laws that cut six days from the early voting period and ended same-day registration, among other restrictions. Secretary of State Jon Husted then announced that there would be no early voting on Sundays or on week-day evenings.

A federal judge recently restored early voting on the last three days before the election, but the other cuts remain in force. They’re being challenged by the ACLU and other civil rights groups, which allege that they disproportionately affect non-white voters.

A brief filed recently by the laws' challengers uses detailed voting records to establish that blacks are far likelier than whites to take advantage of early voting. In 2012, 20% of blacks did so, compared to just 6% of whites.

Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law was recently struck down by a federal judge, who ruled that it discriminated against black voters. But the state has appealed the ruling, and the litigation is ongoing.

It's not clear from Holder's comments whether the Justice Department intends simply to file amicus briefs in support of the laws' challengers, or whether it plans to intervene as a new plaintiff—and assign government lawyers to the cases—as it did when it challenged North Carolina's sweeping voting law last year. It might be more likely to choose the latter route in Ohio, where there hasn't yet been a ruling on the merits of the recent cuts, than in Wisconsin, where a court has already struck down the voter ID law.

But in either case, it would be significant for Holder to put the administration on record in opposition to the restrictive laws. 

"Any time the Department of Justice enters into a case, as party or amicus, and says that a state is violating the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution, that sends a pretty strong message," said Sam Bagenstos, a former number two in the department's Civil Rights Division, who now teaches at the University of Michigan Law School. "It's not the same as devoting all of the staffing and other resources necessary to litigate the case. But DOJ's resources are limited, and often the Department is most effective by participating as an amicus to persuade a court of its view of the law."

"This notion that there is widespread in-person voter fraud is simply belied by the facts."'

If the voting restrictions remain in place in Ohio and Wisconsin, they could give Republican candidates a boost this fall and in 2016, by reducing turnout among minorities and perhaps students. Both states could be pivotal in the 2016 presidential race.   

Holder has made clear that he views protecting voting rights as a top priority for his tenure as attorney general. In addition to the North Carolina lawsuit, the Justice Department also is challenging Texas’s strict voter ID law.

But those challenges were cast as responses to last year’s Shelby ruling, which invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Shelby meant that certain areas of the country with a history of race bias in voting—including Texas and much of North Carolina—no longer had to “pre-clear” any changes to their voting laws with the federal government. Both states had pushed ahead with their laws in the immediate aftermath of the ruling.

By contrast, the cuts in Ohio and Wisconsin weren’t directly prompted by Shelby, since those states hadn’t been required to pre-clear their changes. As such, Holder appears to be looking to send a message that he’ll bring or support voting rights cases not just as a substitute for Section 5, but wherever access to the ballot is threatened by laws that the U.S. views as discriminatory.

Holder also used the interview to criticize voter ID laws, calling them “political efforts” that make it harder to vote for “groups that are not supportive of those in power.”

“Who is disproportionately impacted by them? Young people, African-Americans, Hispanics, older people, people who, for whatever reason, aren't necessarily supportive of the Republican Party,” Holder said, adding: “This notion that there is widespread in-person voter fraud is simply belied by the facts.”

The White House also has signaled its intention to take an aggressive stance on voting rights issues.

In a speech in April, President Obama declared: “The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago.” And the Democratic Party has unveiled an effort to expand voting among marginalized groups, in part by stoking anger over GOP-backed restrictions. 

Update, 1:42pm: Ed FitzGerald, the Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio, released the following statement in response to Holder's comments.

I'm pleased that the U.S. Department of Justice will be joining the fight to protect voter rights in Ohio. Under Governor Kasich, access to the polls has significantly decreased for hardworking Ohioans across the state. Voting is a fundamental right and, as Governor, I'll do everything in my power to protect it.