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Protecting voting rights is a never-ending job

In this May 30 2013 phoTexas state Sen. Juan 'Chuy' Hinojoslooks maps display prior Senate Redistricting committee hearing AustTexas. Attorney

In this May 30, 2013 photo, Texas state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa looks at maps on display prior to a Senate Redistricting committee hearing, in Austin, Texas. Attorney General Eric Holder says Texas is the first place that he will intervene to defend aga

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Updated: August 30, 2013 6:17AM

For democracy to work, Election Day must capture an accurate snapshot of what voters think. That doesn’t happen if politicians scheme to tilt the results one way or another through such ploys as gerrymandering or voter suppression.

On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder took a laudable step toward helping Election Day do its job. In a speech to the National Urban League in Philadelphia, Holder said the Obama administration will challenge states that take advantage of a recent Supreme Court ruling by enacting strict voter identification laws or other measures designed to discourage voting.

Last month, the Supreme Court dismantled the part of the Voting Rights Act that required nine states and parts of six others with a history of abuses to get advance federal clearance for voting changes. The 1965 law is widely credited with opening voting booths to African-American voters in the South, but now states may try to shut the doors again.

Texas, for example, imposed a voter ID law — a tactic designed to keep some voters away from the polls — just hours after the Supreme Court acted last month. In response, Holder said the administration will ask a federal court in San Antonio to require Texas to get approval before redistricting or making other voting changes. The government is basing its case on a different part of the Voting Rights Act that was not struck down. To prevail, the government must prove a state or local government has engaged in intentional discrimination. And Texas, Holder said, has a history of “pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities,” including evidence of racial discrimination presented last year in a redistricting case.

Texas is not the only state newly freed from the Voting Rights Act to impose voter ID requirements. North Carolina, parts of which were covered by the act, on Thursday voted to require voters to present government-issued photo IDs at the polls and shortened early voting by a week, from 17 days to 10. If North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signs the bill, that state may also be targeted by the federal government’s new initiative.

Voter ID laws have been popular in states controlled by Republicans because citizens who don’t have government-issued IDs tend to be young, old, poor or minorities — groups that together tend to vote Democratic. Cutting back on early voting also has a disproportionate effect on Democrats. Republicans argue voter ID laws are needed to prevent election fraud, but have been unable to provide evidence of significant cheating at the polls.

The reason the 5-4 Supreme Court majority gave for striking down part of the Voting Rights Act is that if Congress wants to continue federal oversight, it must base it on up-to-date data. The court’s dissenters argued the entire law still is needed to prevent racial discrimination in voting. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told the Associated Press that discarding the law was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Congress could solve this by agreeing on a new basis for federal oversight. But gridlock in Washington has gotten so bad, this job is almost certainly out of reach for federal lawmakers. Right now, agreeing on rules for a tic-tac-toe match is probably beyond Congress’ ability.

The long history of voter suppression — including poll taxes, literacy tests, whites-only primaries and other tactics — is a sorry chapter of our nation. Investigating those abuses after the fact, when the votes already have been counted, does little good. Holder and the Obama administration are right to do all they can to make sure the votes of all Americans matter.

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