COLUMBIA, S.C. — On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Attorney General Eric Holder said voting rights are under assault in some states and he vowed to defend the Voting Rights Act, which gave many minorities access to the ballot box.
Speaking at a holiday event in Columbia, Holder said some states had sued to challenge provisions of the act and had approved new laws that would make it difficult for some minorities to register and vote this year, five decades after King and other civil rights leaders won congressional passage of the act in 1965.
"Each of these lawsuits claims that we've attained a new era of electoral equality, that America in 2012 has moved beyond the challenges of 1965," Holder told hundreds who gathered outside the domed Capitol. "I wish that were the case. But the reality is that — in jurisdictions across the country — both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common."
Holder's comments come nearly four weeks after the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division ruled that South Carolina's voter identification law was discriminatory because it would make voting harder for minorities, who lack sufficient forms of government-approved ID more often than whites do.
Justice Department officials weighed in on the law under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires approval of proposed voting-law changes in 16 mostly Southern states because they have histories of discrimination.
South Carolina is one of 13 mostly Republican-controlled states that have approved voting laws that include requiring government-approved photo ID to register or vote, shortening early voting periods and curtailing voter registration efforts by third-party groups such as the League of Women Voters or the NAACP.
Supporters of the new laws say they're needed to protect against voter fraud. Several studies and investigations — including a five-year inquiry by President George W. Bush's Justice Department — indicate that voter fraud in the United States is negligible.
Opponents view the laws as a thinly veiled attempt to suppress the votes of minorities, the elderly and the young — key voting blocs for the Democratic Party.