Obama To Huddle With Minority Leaders Over Voting Rights

PHOTO: Supporters of the Voting Rights Act listen to speakers discussing rulings outside the U.S. Supreme Court building on June 25, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Obama on Monday will meet with a handful of state and local elected officials on voting rights, the latest sign that the administration is gearing up to fight Republican-led states over election laws.

Lawmakers and civil rights officials will discuss "strengthening the Voting Rights Act and safeguarding every eligible American's right to vote," according to the president's schedule. Attorney General Eric Holder and Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a former civil rights official at the Department of Justice, will also attend.

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has signaled it's prepared to take action against southern states that enact new election laws in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to knock down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Last Thursday, Holder said that he would ask a court to force Texas to get prior approval to change its election laws. Texas was one of 16 states required to obtain "preclearance" from the federal government before altering its voting laws, since it had a history of using them to discriminate against racial and ethnic minorities.

But the Court struck down that "preclearance" measure last month, calling the law's preclearance formula outdated.

In its absence, Texas moved to implement a sweeping new voter ID law that was previously blocked by a court. Civil rights groups have said the law could make it difficult for many Latinos to vote.

And civil-rights groups still want Texas' new political maps pre-approved by federal judges, since courts ruled that a previous version underrepresented minority voters.

"Here we are going forward—what, 35 years?—and we're still seeing the same discriminatory actions," Texas state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D) said during an interview with ABC/Univision earlier this year. "Things haven't gotten better in Texas."

Martinez will be one of the officials meeting with Obama today, his office said.

Holder called the original Voting Rights Act "the cornerstone of modern civil rights law" last Thursday.

"My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination wherever it is found," Holder said during a speech to the National Urban League in Philadelphia. "We cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve."

Texas Republicans have called the Obama administration's effort a political ploy to gain advantage in future elections. Democrats want to make deep-red Texas into a purple state, in part by harnessing its rapidly growing Latino population. Latinos now make up 38 percent of the state's population, according to Census figures.

In response to Holder's speech, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said that the administration seems to be "sowing racial divide," according to the Associated Press.

Another state that could come on the administration's radar is North Carolina. Republicans passed a law that would require voters to bring photo identification to the polls, end same-day voter registration, and restrict early-voting time. Like Texas, North Carolina was previously required to seek "preclearance" to change its election laws due to a history of discrimination against black voters.

Obama won the state in 2008 with the help of a strong showing from black voters, but narrowly lost it to Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. The state's Latino population nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, and now stands at 8.4 percent, according to Census data.

Experts believe that officials in states like North Carolina will closely watch how the administration handles its challenge of Texas.

"You can imagine a very aggressive Justice Department trying to get the bar as low as possible and demanding that states be bailed in," Rebecca Green, co-director of the election law program at the College of William & Mary, told the Associated Press last week.

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