Attorney General Eric Holder told African-American clergy leaders Wednesday that a wave of new state laws on voting and legal challenges to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 may jeopardize rights they helped fight for in the civil rights era. “Despite our nation’s long tradition of extending voting rights . . . a growing number of our fellow citizens are worried about the same disparities, divisions and problems that – nearly five decades ago – so many fought to address,” Holder told a meeting of the Conference of National Black Churches convened by the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss the laws. “In my travels across the country, I’ve heard a consistent drumbeat of concern from citizens, who – often for the first time in their lives – now have reason to believe that we are failing to live up to one of our nation’s most noble ideals. And some of the achievements that defined the civil rights movement now hang in the balance.” Holder spoke in response to an array of new voting measures enacted by several mostly Republican state governments that proponents say are needed to protect against voter fraud and to prevent illegal immigrants from voting. However, the mostly Democratic black caucus – along with several civil rights, voting rights and civil liberties groups – contends that the laws are really efforts to suppress the votes of minorities and others.
Since last year, at least 15 states have passed laws that include requiring people to show government-approved photo identification or proof of citizenship before they register or vote. Other changes that states have adopted or some legislatures are considering include restricting voter-registration efforts by third-party groups, such as the League of Women Voters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; curtailing or eliminating early voting; doing away with same-day voter registration; and rescinding the voting rights of convicted felons who’ve served their time.
A study last year by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University says the changes could restrict voting access to 5 million people, most of them minorities, elderly or poor. The NAACP estimates that about 25 percent of African-Americans don’t possess the proper documentation to meet ID requirements in some states; the figure is 11 percent for the overall population. “There is a right-wing conspiracy that is alive and well in this country that is trying to take us back to 1900 and even before,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., a black caucus member, told the clergy leaders. “What they want to do is not take away the right to vote, but if black voter participation can be diminished even by 10 percent it will make that critical difference all across the country.”