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While shutdown temporarily paralyzed Washington, Eric Holder remains focused on voting rights

Jonathan P Hicks | 10/17/2013, 2:56 p.m.
Jonathan P. Hicks

With all the drama surrounding the government shutdown and the Republican Party’s obstinate attempt to obstruct the implementation of expanded health care coverage for millions of Americans, there has been little attention paid to an area where the Obama administration is also flexing its muscles in a highly significant way.

The Justice Department announced recently that it was suing North Carolina over its horrendous and restrictive new voter identification law, saying that it has the effect of making it more difficult for African-American and other voters to cast their ballots in that state.

The suit shows just how vigilant President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder are in monitoring voting rights after the Supreme Court’s decision this summer to strike down critical components of the Voting Rights Act.

While several states led by Republican legislators are rampantly curbing voting access these days, the actions of North Carolina’s legislature and Republican governor have been particularly outlandish. This is a group of Republicans, empowered in the last election cycle, who seem giddy about the prospect of turning back the clock.

North Carolina’s legislature and its right-wing governor, Pat McCrory, have cut the payroll tax credit for more than 900,000 poor and working people in North Carolina. They have rejected federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage for more than 500,000 residents who don’t have health insurance.

When it comes to voting, not only have they enacted this new voter identification law, but they have also reduced the period of early voting from 17 days to 19 days. Early voting has been an electoral option that was widely used by African-American churches to support participation at the polls. They have also eliminated same-day registration during early voting.

The North Carolina suit is similar to another filed against Texas. Under Holder, the Justice Department is taking a strong and vitally appropriate lead in protecting the rights of Americans to have the greatest possible access and ease to cast ballots.

“The state legislature took extremely aggressive steps to curtail the voting rights of African-Americans,” Holder said at a press conference. “This is an intentional attempt to break a system that was working.”

He is right. The conservative wing of the Republican Party, a group that has gained strength in the last years, seems intent on returning America to a time when African-Americans’ ability to cast ballots were relegated to the whims of local elections officials.

It is also a cynical effort to control the outcome of elections by restricting access to voting. These restrictive voting rights issues emerged during the 2012 presidential election. Most all of those efforts were blocked by courts. But they have returned not even a year later with a fury that is breathtaking.

If there is any good news whatsoever, it is that after the heartbreaking Supreme Court decision, there is a Justice Department that is actively working to ensure that the gains that have been made in voting access remain protected. Holder should be saluted for continuing to take on these important voting rights cases throughout the country. It represents one of the most important battles of our time.