"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 have 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."
Black caucus members argue that the photo ID law is a 21st-century poll tax that forces voters to pay for driver's licenses or other government-sanctioned photo identification to be able to exercise a guaranteed constitutional right.
Some supporters of photo ID and other voting-access measures say it's the opposition that's playing racial politics.
"This little thing in my hand is a driver's license," former Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., said at a Houston summit earlier this month hosted by True the Vote, a tea party group that's seeking to train thousands of volunteers nationwide to be poll watchers this November. "This is not a billy club, this is not a fire hose, this is not Jim Crow, though some people say it is."
Davis, a former black caucus member who seconded President Barack Obama's nomination at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and unsuccessfully ran for governor of Alabama in 2010, announced that he's switching to the Republican Party and is considering running for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in Virginia.
(In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican who's often mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate, recently signed an order making state IDs available for free as a way of mitigating any vote-suppressing effects of his state's ID law.
Many Southern states are particularly sensitive to accusations of vote suppression, as many still face federal regulation under the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department recently rejected photo ID laws in South Carolina and Texas as discriminatory, and it's reviewing Florida's new voter laws. South Carolina and Texas have taken their cases to a U.S. District Court panel in Washington.
Holder told the clergy leaders Wednesday that at least nine lawsuits have been filed over the last two years challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 of the act - which requires states with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval for changes in their voting procedures - and arguing that it's no longer needed because the states under it have made great strides in ensuring that voting access is fair and nondiscriminatory.
"I wish this were the case," Holder said. "But the reality is that, in jurisdictions across the country, both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common - and have not yet been relegated to the pages of history."
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