U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last week announced the Justice Department submitted filings in voting rights cases in Wisconsin and Ohio.
The department’s involvement in the two cases represents its latest steps to enforce the remaining parts of the Voting Rights Act against restrictive state laws, following up on the department’s lawsuits last year against similar measures in Texas and North Carolina.
In the Wisconsin case, the department filed an amicus brief in Frank v. Walker and LULAC v. Deininger, supporting an earlier ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin that struck down Wisconsin’s strict photo voter identification requirement due to its effects on minority voters under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and because it unduly burdens a substantial number of voters in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In the Ohio case, the department filed a statement of interest in NAACP v. Husted, a challenge by a civil rights group to a state law curtailing early voting and same day registration.
The department’s brief contests the state of Ohio’s incorrect interpretation of the standards set forth by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
“These filings are necessary to confront the pernicious measures in Wisconsin and Ohio that would impose significant barriers to the most basic right of our democracy,” Holder said in a press release. “These two states’ voting laws represent the latest, misguided attempts to fix a system that isn’t broken. These restrictive state laws threaten access to the ballot box. The Justice Department will never shrink from our responsibility to protect the voting rights of every eligible American. And we will keep using every available tool at our disposal to guard against all forms of discrimination, to prevent voter disenfranchisement, and to secure the rights of every citizen.”
In the amicus brief filed last week in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the department argued that the district court reached the correct decision by finding that Wisconsin’s voter ID law, known as Act 23, violated the Fourteenth Amendment, because it imposes unjustified burdens on a significant number of voters, and violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, because it has a discriminatory result on African-American and Hispanic voters.
In addition to finding that Act 23 would result in minority voters having less opportunity to participate in the political process relative to other members of the electorate, the court found that the state’s claimed interests in combating voter fraud and promoting electoral confidence did not justify the significant burdens Act 23 imposes on substantial numbers of voters who lack a qualifying ID.
In the statement of interest filed today in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, the department makes clear that Section 2 prohibits the state of Ohio from imposing any voting qualification, prerequisite to voting, or any standard, practice or procedure that would result in the denial or abridgement of the right to vote on account of a person’s race, color or membership in a language minority group.
The filing also makes clear that in its own filings in the case the state of Ohio has incorrectly interpreted its requirements under Section 2.
The department did not take a position on any of the other claims in the case.
“The United States Department of Justice today affirms its clear position that, under Wisconsin’s Act 23, minority voters have less opportunity to participate in the political process,” said James L. Santelle, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. “The amicus brief that we are filing not only supports the trial court’s findings but also reflects the department’s continuing focus on ensuring that the franchise remains fully available to all qualified voters.”
In the year since the Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula that determined which jurisdictions were subject to preclearance underthe Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act remains one of the department’s most powerful tools to protect voting rights.
Last year the department used Section 2 to file two lawsuits against the state of Texas to stop the newly enacted discriminatory voter ID law and and to obtain a ruling that the state engaged in intentional discrimination in adopting its 2011 redistricting plans.
In North Carolina, the department used Section 2 to sue to stop a number of provisions in an election law that imposes strict voter ID requirements, restricts early voting, eliminates same-day registration and refuses to count otherwise valid provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct. The suit alleges that the challenged law was motivated by a racially discriminatory purpose and will result in African-American voters having less opportunity than other citizens to participate in the political process.
All three cases are ongoing.