A counter-offensive in the ‘war on voting’

Republican efforts appear likely to keep upwards of 5 million Americans from participating in the 2012 elections, following an aggressive campaign to restrict access. Ari Berman recently labeled it the Republican Party’s “War on Voting,” and as part of the national effort, GOP officials “have launched an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the elements of the Democratic vote” next year.

But the initiative has not gone unnoticed by the administration. Berman noted this week comments from President Obama on the effort to keep people from voting.

“I will say that my big priority is making sure that as many people are participating in our democracy as possible. Some of these moves in some of the other states that we’ve seen try to make it tougher to vote, restricting ballot access, making it hard on seniors, making it hard on young people.

“I think that’s a big mistake, and I have made sure that our Justice Department is taking a look at what’s being done across the country to ensure that people aren’t being denied access to the franchise.”

That part about the Justice Department is, as near as I can tell, a new development. DOJ officials may have some options in combating the Republican efforts — most notably, investigations on whether the new laws violate the Voting Rights Act — but the surest way to get to find out is for the president to ask Justice to launch a review.

That said, Ryan J. Reilly reports this morning that some DOJ efforts are already underway, but state discretion in this areas limits the reach of federal officials.

Sure, federal officials with DOJ’s Civil Rights Division are reviewing voter ID laws passed in South Carolina and Texas because both states have a history of discrimination and are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. DOJ told South Carolina last month that they need more info before making a decision and in September told Texas they have more questions.

But for all the other states that passed voter ID laws that aren’t subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, federal intervention is a long shot. The only other option for opposing a voter ID law is an argument under Section 2 of the VRA, where the burden of proof is pretty high.

In most of the states where the war on voting is most intense, it looks like voters who wanted the public to have more access to participating in free elections shouldn’t have elected so many far-right Republicans to key state offices.