Today, a group of United States Senators, lead by Michael Bennet of Colorado urged the U.S. Department of Justice to carefully review the highly restrictive photo ID laws that have been passed – or are under consideration – in states across the country. This is a huge development, and we hope the DOJ will use its authority granted by the Voting Rights Act to protect those who would be disenfranchised.
Heather Smith, President of Rock the Vote, issued the following statement in support of the letter and DOJ action:
“While several states have turned back the clock on access to the ballot box, the Department of Justice has the authority and obligation to protect all citizens’ constitutional right to vote. These unnecessary, expensive and unjust laws make it harder for young people to vote, particularly students and young minority voters. We are fighting back because the rights of young voters are under attack.
“Young voter participation has been on the rise, a fact we should be celebrating and continuing to advance. Instead, we are witness to a concerted state-by-state effort to construct new barriers. We appreciate that Senator Bennet and his colleagues recognize the injustice of these laws and are part of the fight.”
Senator Bennet’s letter was signed by Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) and U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (IL), Chuck Schumer (NY), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Sherrod Brown (OH), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Jeff Merkley (OR), Mark Begich (AK), Ben Cardin (MD), Mary Landrieu (LA), Patty Murray (WA), Ron Wyden (OR), Tom Harkin (IA), Herb Kohl (WI) and Tom Udall (NM).
Since January, photo ID laws have been enacted in Wisconsin, South Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Kansas and Tennessee. In Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire and North Carolina, Governors have vetoed bills that passed their state legislatures; those vetoes likely will be challenged with override votes in New Hampshire and North Carolina. Ohio and Pennsylvania are actively considering proposals, joining over 30 states that have introduced legislation to require only government-issued photo IDs at the polls. (You can see our full map here.)
Here is the full text of the letter:
Dear Attorney General Holder:
We are writing to express our concerns about highly restrictive photo identification requirements under consideration or already signed into law in several states. These measures have the potential to block millions of eligible American voters without addressing any problem commensurate with this kind of restriction on voting rights. Studies have shown that as high as 11% of eligible voters nationwide do not have a government-issued ID. This percentage is higher for seniors, racial minorities, low-income voters and students. Voting is the foundation of our democracy, and we urge you to protect the voting rights of Americans by using the full power of the Department of Justice to review these voter identification laws and scrutinize their implementation.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act vests significant authority in the Department to review laws before they are implemented in covered jurisdictions. As you know, the burden of proof in this preclearance process is on those covered jurisdictions, which must be able to show that legal changes will not have a discriminatory impact on minority voters. New photo identification laws, for instance, must be subjected to the highest scrutiny as states justify these new barriers to participation. In Section 5 jurisdictions, whenever photo identification legislation is considered, the Department should closely monitor the legislative process to track any unlawful intent evinced by the proceedings.
Restrictive photo identification requirements are also being considered or have passed in states and jurisdictions that are not covered by Section 5. The Department should exercise vigilance in overseeing whether these laws are implemented in a way that discriminates against protected classes in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Additionally, federal civil rights law – 42 U.S.C. 1971(a)(2)- prohibits different standards, practices or procedures from being applied to individuals within a jurisdiction. We believe the Department should ensure that these photo identification laws do not violate this statute or other federal voting rights statutes.
Highly restrictive photo identification requirements at the polls can make it more difficult for well-intentioned voters to cast their ballots, and as far as America’s civil rights trajectory is concerned, that sort of effect takes America in the wrong direction. We urge you to exercise your authority to examine these laws so that voting rights are not jeopardized. We also request that you brief us on the efforts the Department is undertaking to ensure these new laws are implemented in accordance with the Voting Rights Act.
Thank you for your work protecting the civil rights of all Americans.