Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. denounced recent state laws that restrict voting and, citing the long struggle to ensure voting rights for all, hinted that the Justice Department would challenge some of them in court.
In a speech Tuesday at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, Holder quoted Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran of the civil rights movement, as saying that voting rights were being attacked in "a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students [and] minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process."
"The right to vote is not only the cornerstone of our system of government. It is the lifeblood of our democracy," Holder said. "Many Americans, 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 and essential ideals."
Holder proposed that the federal government automatically register all citizens to vote.
"Today, the single biggest barrier to voting in this country is our antiquated registration system," the attorney general said. "All eligible citizens can and should be automatically registered to vote."
He said he was troubled by new laws in South Carolina and Texas that require registered voters to show state-issued photo identification before casting a ballot. Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Wisconsin also require photo IDs.
Holder also cited Florida's recent law that reduced the number of days for early voting and set new penalties on voter registration groups, such as the League of Women Voters, if they don't follow strict procedures.
During Florida's legislative debate preceding the law's passage, a Republican state senator argued that it should not be easy or convenient to vote. Voting "is a hard-fought privilege. This is something people died for," said Sen. Michael Bennett of Bradenton, the chamber's president pro tempore. "Why should we make it easier?"
Holder also cited a need to combat discrimination in the allocation of political power. He criticized the Texas Legislature for redrawing its congressional districts in a way that gives "zero additional seats" representing the state's Latino population, whose growth is largely responsible for the state getting four extra House seats as a result of the 2010 census.
Last week, the Supreme Court intervened in the Texas dispute and said it would decide whether the state may use the redistricting map drawn by its Republican-controlled Legislature or one drawn by judges in San Antonio that would give Latinos and Democrats a better chance of winning. A special three-judge panel in Washington had refused to approve the Legislature's map.
Under the Voting Rights Act, Southern states with a history of racial discrimination must seek approval from Washington before putting new election laws into effect. Holder promised a "thorough but fair" review.