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The fighting spirit comes out in Eric Holder

Jonathan P Hicks | 7/23/2012, 4:49 p.m.
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Republicans in Congress, fueled by their insatiable disdain for President Barack Obama, have sought to make Attorney General Eric Holder's life as difficult as possible. They have voted to make Holder the first member of a presidential cabinet in American history to be held in contempt of Congress after he withheld documents that House Republican lawmakers requested as part of an investigation into a flawed "gunwalking" operation.

The vote was designed to embarrass the president and diffuse Holder as a force that has become increasingly hostile to changes in voting rights laws around the country. The vote by the highly partisan Republican-led Congress was aimed at getting Holder off-focus. In reality, it had little to do with a desire to get material from an attorney general who had already provided the lawmakers in Washington with more than 7,000 documents.

But instead of neutralizing Holder, the current political climate seems only to have energized him. Holder spoke this week at the NAACP convention in Houston, giving a rousing, impassioned defense of his fight to block the various restrictive voting laws that have been adopted by several states with Republican leadership in their statehouses.

"Let me be clear: We will not allow political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens of their most precious rights," Holder said in the speech to thunderous applause. "I can assure you that the Justice Department's efforts to uphold and enforce voting rights will remain aggressive."

It is heartening and inspiring to see the attorney general speaking so forcefully and with such resolve about his desire to wage a battle for what has become the most significant civil rights issue of our time. With no apparent evidence that voter fraud has played a notable role in elections in the last decade or two, Republican legislatures in several states have adopted laws to require specific forms of identification for anyone attempting to cast a vote. In short, the process of voting that got Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes elected worked fine for them, but the prospect of re-electing the nation's first African-American president, from their perspective, necessitates wholesale changes in the way Americans are allowed to cast their votes.

Holder made it clear that he vigorously opposes the new photo identification requirement in Texas because it would present substantial challenges for Black and Latino voters.

"Many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them, and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them," Holder said in his NAACP speech. He pointed out that, under the newly adopted Texas law, there would be a cost of at least $22 for a resident of the state to get a voter ID without a copy of his or her birth certificate. The Texas legislature voted down a proposal to allow people to get the documents needed for a voter ID for free.

It is that reality that led Holder to refer to the voting rights assault as amounting to nothing more than "a poll tax." It was a reference to the practice of many Southern states in the era of segregation to charge Black voters fees in order to disenfranchise them.

Holder's strong position on voting rights, coupled with the efforts of progressive Democrats in Congress and civil rights groups like the NAACP, have fueled what has become a growing national debate on the topic.

And it comes not a minute too soon.