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Former Attorney General Eric Holder speaks on voting rights

| Monday, November 2, 2020

This past Friday, Eric Holder, former Attorney General of the United States, spoke on voting rights as part of the Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary lecture series. Hosted by the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights, the lecture series features scholars and leaders from around the world to better understand systematic racism and racial justice.

Holder held office from 2009 through 2015 during former President Barack Obama’s tenure, and he is now a partner at Covington & Burling LLP and chairs the board of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, an organization devoted to addressing the issue of gerrymandering.

Elizabeth Prater | The Observer
Eric Holder, the 82nd Attorney General of the U.S., spoke on voter suppression in America, addressing structural inequality that still persists today.

The lecture began by addressing the relevant history and context of voter suppression, addressing the time period after the passage of the 15th amendment, which prohibited the denial of the right to vote on the basis of race.

“In the post-Civil War era, you had a flowering of Black voter participation, and frankly, the creation of Black political power that threatened the status quo, particularly in the South and measures were then put in place to disenfranchise newly freed people,” Holder said. “Poll taxes, literacy tests, the use of violence, to make sure that people did not register and then did not vote.”

Holder described how the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s combatted these obstacles.

“The [1965] Voting Rights Act is justifiability called the ‘crown jewel of the civil rights movement.’ It essentially put under federal examination the Old South and those states that had a history of discrimination,” Holder said.

Holder continued to explain that any changes to the voting system would then have to go through the Justice Department.

“That was something that led to the flower again of voter participation, but also, the rebirth of Black political power,” Holder said. “You see an astronomical leap in the number of Black political officials.”

Through his work in the Redistricting Committee, Holder addressed some of the systemic racial measures that have taken place in the U.S.

“If you have huge numbers of Black people in a district or in an area in the South, or in the North, you come up with ways in which through the process called gerrymandering, you minimize that power,” Holder said. “You draw district lines in such a way that you encapsulate Black people into just one district or crack and spread them out over a number of districts. Either way, you really kind of minimize the amount of power that African American communities should have.”

While partisan gerrymandering as existed for decades, Holder said racial gerrymandering has gained more traction in recent years.

“As African Americans become more closely identified with the Democratic Party, there is kind of an overlap between partisan gerrymandering and racial gerrymandering,” Holder said. “There are sometimes, and very often, a part of the same thing.”

Durham asked for Holder’s opinion on the Supreme Court’s recent decision that states that they will no longer be addressing partisan gerrymandering cases.

“I think that’s an awful decision,” Holder said. “Why do the federal courts exist, but to somehow grapple and resolve these issues? I think that the notion that gerrymandering has been with us almost as long as we have been a republic doesn’t mean it is something that we should accept, being partisan or racial gerrymanders.”

Holder said he thought the court’s decision “really turns its back on protecting our democracy.”

The discussion continued to address voter suppression that may appear neutral, but may impact more significantly marginalized communities, such as the requirement of a photo ID.

“African Americans and Hispanic Americans don’t have driver’s licenses to the extent that their white counterparts do. But it even goes a little beyond that,” Holder said. “ In Texas, if you look at the way the law was written there, if you had a state-issues license to be able to carry a gun… that was fine. If you had a University of Texas State issued photo ID, that was not acceptable.”

Holder also addressed concerns of voter fraud in discussing photo ID laws.

“These unnecessary photo ID laws, supposedly, it is to try to protect the voting system form in-person voter fraud. Brennan Center has done a study and said that you’re more likely to be hit by lightning than cast an in-person fraudulent vote.”

Holder said that this isn’t to say voter fraud doesn’t exist, but rather, the events are very isolated and these measures are drastic, given the “negative collateral impacts of these measures.”

Holder ended the discussion by leaving book recommendations to learn more about the topics discussed, such as “Slavery by Another Name” by Douglas Blackmon and “The Second Founding” by Eric Foner. Additionally, addressing the large undergraduate student body that was attending the lecture, he gave a call to action to the young audience.

“You see the problems, now the question is what are we going to do as a nation to deal, deal with those problems? And this is not something that we simply leave to our elected leaders,” Holder said. “The question is what are we as individual citizens, going to do, to be a part of the process of electoral reform?”

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