In an interview with Philadelphia radio host Michael Smerconish last week, President Obama for the first time denounced the wave of new laws passed by Republicans designed to restrict the right to vote for millions of Americans.
Said the president:
I will say that my big priority is making sure that as many people are participating in our democracy as possible. Some of these moves in some of the other states that we’ve seen try to make it tougher to vote, restricting ballot access, making it hard on seniors, making it hard on young people.
I think that’s a big mistake, and I have made sure that our Justice Department is taking a look at what’s being done across the country to ensure that people aren’t being denied access to the franchise.
The fact that Obama invoked the Justice Department is very important, since the department has the authority under the Voting Rights Act to approve, deny or modify these laws. “The Justice Department should be much more aggressive in areas covered by the Voting Rights Act,” Congressman John Lewis told me recently.
There are signs that is starting to happen. The Justice Department recently sent pointed letters to Texas and South Carolina, two states that have strict new photo ID requirements, asking for more information on what kind of impact the laws will have on minority voters. And last month, the department found that Texas’s new redistricting maps for the state house and US House of Representatives violated the Voting Rights Act by shortchanging Hispanic residents. (A three-panel federal district court in Washington, which also has authority under the VRA, is now reviewing the Texas maps.)
Career lawyers in the civil rights division of the Justice Department, who were frequently sidelined and overruled during the Bush Administration, are reasserting their authority and independence under Obama. They may be the only ones who can halt the GOP’s war on voting.