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Obama administration declares new voter rights strategy

The cortege of former first lady Lady Bird Johnson passes by the State Capitol building in Austin, Texas July 15, 2007. REUTERS/Peter Silva
The cortege of former first lady Lady Bird Johnson passes by the State Capitol building in Austin, Texas July 15, 2007. REUTERS/Peter Silva

By David Ingram and Dave Warner

WASHINGTON/PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The Obama administration embarked on a new strategy on Thursday to challenge voting laws it says discriminate by race, an effort to counter a Supreme Court ruling last month that freed states from the strictest federal oversight.

Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to start in Texas, a conservative stronghold where his Justice Department will ask a federal court for renewed power to block new election laws it says illegally discriminate against blacks and other minorities.

The Texas action was expected to be the first in a nationwide roll-out of cases to work around Shelby County v. Holder, the Alabama case in which the Supreme Court on June 25 invalidated a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

"This is the department's first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last," Holder said to a standing ovation in Philadelphia at the annual conference of the National Urban League, a civil rights organization.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican and possible presidential candidate in 2016, said the move demonstrated contempt by the Obama administration.

"This end-run around the Supreme Court undermines the will of the people of Texas, and casts unfair aspersions on our state's commonsense efforts to preserve the integrity of our elections process," Perry said in a statement.

Democratic President Barack Obama's administration has been searching for new ways to oppose voting discrimination since a 5-4 conservative majority on the high court ruled that a formula used to determine which states and localities were subject to extra federal scrutiny was outdated.

The extra scrutiny had included U.S. government preclearance of any changes in voting laws or procedures, down to the location of polling places, for a select number of states and localities with a history of racial discrimination.

The Justice Department was already tangling with Texas in federal courts, alleging that the state discriminated by race in two impermissible ways.

First, department lawyers objected to the drawing of congressional and state legislative district lines that they say leave too few places where a minority candidate can win.

Second, although the Justice Department has allowed voter ID requirements in some states, it said Texas failed to include measures to protect minority voters.

Based on the evidence already presented in court, "we believe that the State of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices," said Holder, the first black U.S. attorney general.

Holder also said Texas has a "history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities that the Supreme Court itself has recognized."

HIGH COURT WORK-AROUND

The Justice Department was expected to formalize its request in a filing in federal court in Texas on Thursday.

When the Supreme Court invalidated the Voting Rights Act's coverage formula, it freed Texas and select other jurisdictions from having to submit their voting laws to the Justice Department or a federal court before they could take effect.

The covered jurisdictions were mostly in the South, a region where officials had a history of denying minorities the right to vote. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the high court's ruling that the South had changed dramatically.

The court left in place, though, other parts of the Voting Rights Act, provisions Holder hopes to leverage to duplicate what was known as the Section 5 preclearance process.

The act's Section 3 allows a court to "bail-in" a state or locality to the preclearance process if it has committed a constitutional violation. The section has been used against two states, Arkansas and New Mexico, and against six counties and one city, according to a 2010 tally in the Yale Law Journal.

"It has been sparingly used, and it made sense because we had Section 5, which was an incredibly effective tool," said Myrna Pérez, a voting rights lawyer with the liberal Brennan Center for Justice in New York.

Some members of Congress have discussed passing a new formula for Section 5 that would comply with the Supreme Court's ruling and automatically subject some jurisdictions to preclearance, but they have yet to do so.

SPLIT REACTION

The Justice Department used Section 5 preclearance to block both Texas' voter ID law and its redistricting plan, winning two separate cases in federal court in Washington last year.

Then, after the Supreme Court's ruling in June, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican who has since announced he is running for governor, said the laws could go into effect immediately.

State lawmakers ultimately approved a redistricting plan that was deemed friendlier to minority populations, though state Democrats still criticize it and it is the subject of a lawsuit in federal court in Texas.

Holder's announcement was cheered by Texas Democrats and opposed by Republicans.

"I'll fight #Obama's effort to control our elections & I'll fight against cheating at the ballot box," Abbott wrote on Twitter.

"It is 100 percent appropriate and a good thing that the Department of Justice is going to pursue every angle to protect the voting rights for Texans who have historically been disenfranchised," said Jeff Rotkoff, a Democratic consultant in Austin, Texas.

Texas' voter ID law requires voters to show a photo ID before casting a ballot, a measure its supporters, mostly Republicans, said is necessary to prevent fraud.

Democrats said it would disproportionately affect the poor and minorities because even getting a free photo ID would require travel to a state office and proof that costs money to obtain, such as a certified copy of a birth certificate.

(Additional reporting by Karen Brooks; Editing by Scott Malone, Barbara Goldberg, Howard Goller, Maureen Bavdek and Jim Loney)

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