WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) is requesting that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) carefully review highly restrictive photo identification voter requirements that are under consideration or recently signed into law in several states that could potentially disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Bennet—along with fifteen other senators expressed concerns about voter identification laws, which could disenfranchise American voters.
“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. 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,” the Senators wrote in the letter.
“These laws are a solution in search of a problem,” said Bennet. “Instead of protecting the integrity of our voting system, many of these laws effectively disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters. Voting is integral to the strength of our democracy, and we should be working to increase voting participation, not keeping valid voters from having their voices heard.”
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, DOJ is granted significant authority to review laws before they are implemented in covered jurisdictions. Covered jurisdictions have the burden of proof to establish that changes in their laws will not have a discriminatory impact on minority voters. In states not covered by Section 5, DOJ can 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. DOJ also has authority under the Voting Rights Act to require that all individual’s qualified to vote in a jurisdiction be held to the same standards, practices and procedures.
Since January, voter ID laws have been passed in Wisconsin, South Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Kansas and Tennessee; Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire are also considering proposals.
These laws have the potential to disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters and disproportionately affect particular populations. Studies have shown that as high as 11 percent of eligible voters nationwide do not have a government-issued ID. This percentage is higher among seniors, racial minorities, low-income voters and students.
Research has turned up few cases of the kind of voter fraud photo ID laws would prevent, and voter impersonation already is punishable by up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines under federal law.
In response to the request Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said, “The civil and human rights community welcomes the senators’ request to the Department of Justice to examine state voter identification laws to make sure that eligible voters are not denied the right to vote,"
Henderson added, "Voting is our most fundamental right as citizens; it’s the right that makes all other rights possible. Yet instead of making voting more accessible, these measures would deny voting rights to the 11 percent of voters who do not have government-issued identification— and an even higher percentage of seniors, people of color, people with disabilities, people with low incomes, and students. That fact alone requires additional vigilance.
The Justice Department must vigorously enforce our voting rights laws so that every eligible voter is permitted to cast a vote and to have that vote counted. Our nation has come too far and has too much at stake to allow new forms of discrimination to suppress this fundamental right.”
Full text of the letter is included below.
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.