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Originally published July 25, 2013 at 8:20 PM | Page modified July 26, 2013 at 4:27 PM

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Justice Dept. takes new aim at states’ voting laws

The Justice Department decision to challenge state officials marks an aggressive effort to continue policing voting issues and will likely spark a new round of litigation that could return consideration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to the Supreme Court.

The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is preparing to take fresh legal action in a string of voting-rights cases across the nation, U.S. officials said, part of a new attempt to blunt the impact of a Supreme Court ruling that the Obama administration has warned will imperil minority representation.

The decision to challenge state officials marks an aggressive effort to continue policing voting issues and will likely spark a new round of litigation that could return consideration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to the highest court.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to intervene in a Texas redistricting case Thursday follows a ruling by the court last month that invalidated a crucial section, Section 5, of the historic legislation.

The ruling did away with a requirement that Texas and eight other states, mostly in the South, and parts of seven other states get permission from the Justice Department or a federal court before changing election procedures.

On Thursday, the administration asked a federal court in Texas to restore that “pre-clearance” requirement there, citing the state’s recent history and relying on a different part of the voting-rights law.

Holder’s action was praised by civil-rights groups but criticized by Republicans on Capitol Hill and in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry said it demonstrated the Obama administration’s “utter contempt” for the U.S. Constitution.

The Justice Department’s intervention in Texas will focus attention on those sections of the Voting Rights Act untouched by the Supreme Court’s ruling last month in Shelby County v. Holder, according to election-law experts.

“This is a big deal,” said Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine. “It shows that the Department of Justice is going to use whatever tools it has remaining in its arsenal to protect minority voting rights. But the issue could well end up back before the Supreme Court, perhaps even this coming term.”

In the coming weeks, Holder is expected to use Sections 2 and 3 of the law to take legal action to prevent states from implementing certain laws, including requirements to present certain kinds of identification to vote. As with Texas, the department is also expected to try to force certain states to get approval, or “pre-clearance,” before they can change their election laws.

“Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the Court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to ensure the voting rights of all American citizens are protected,” Holder said in a speech Thursday to the National Urban League conference in Philadelphia. “My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination wherever it is found.”

Holder said that, in a first step, the department will support a lawsuit in Texas that was brought by a coalition of Democratic legislators and civil-rights groups against the state’s redistricting plan. Holder is also asking the court to require Texas to submit all voting-law changes to the Justice Department for approval for 10 years because of its history of discrimination.

The Justice Department may also soon sue Texas over its voter-ID law, as well as North Carolina, if that state passes a new voter-ID law.

“Texans should not — and will not — stand for the continued bullying of our state by the Obama administration,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement.

Texas is the largest state that was covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal approval of any voting changes. The act also covers Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, Alaska, Arizona and parts of seven other states, including North Carolina.

Proponents of the law said it would be nearly impossible for a Congress bitterly divided along partisan lines to reach an agreement on a new formula to decide which states must bring any changes in their voting laws to the Justice Department or federal judges for approval.

Material from The New York Times is included in this report.

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