Former United States Attorney General Eric Holder began his remarks at Boston College Thursday night by saying that the voting rights of many Americans, foundational to every other right, are facing a vigorous assault nationwide.
“There is a movement in America that attempts to make [voting] more difficult,” Holder said. “Too many in this country are trying too hard to make it too difficult for the people, their fellow citizens, to express their views.”
Holder spoke about the continuing struggle to preserve voting rights at Robsham Theater in his keynote speech that was part of the Clough Colloquium speaker series and was sponsored by the the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics.
Though Americans have always had to show some form of identification at the polls, many state legislatures have begun to pass overly prescriptive and unfairly restrictive laws limiting what forms of identification are acceptable, Holder said.
Many states now require a state-issued identification card, which many voters lack, while many more accessible forms of identification that were formerly acceptable, such as utility bills, are no longer permitted at the polls. One law in Texas prohibited voters from using university-issued ID cards to vote, while a state-issued concealed weapons permit was deemed acceptable.
The reflexive justification for stricter identification requirements is that the integrity of the electoral process is under threat from voter fraud. Holder said that he finds such arguments dubious, as the only voter fraud that these new mandates could possibly prevent is the physical impersonation of individual voters.
Successfully distorting the results of an election by this method of fraud, Holder said, would be an impossibly massive undertaking. Considering that impersonating a voter is a felony, Holder said that the high risks involved and the huge numbers of fraudulent voters that would be needed to change an election’s outcome make in-person voting an unlikely source of electoral corruption—and explain why no attempts at such a scheme have ever been detected.
Holder, who prosecuted voter fraud cases during his tenure at the Department of Justice, said that there are only 31 known cases of in-person voter fraud out of 1 billion votes cast in the U.S. from 2000 to 2014.
For most of America’s history, fears of voter fraud were virtually non-existent, until the 2008 election, when African-American voter turnout surged to record levels and helped elect Barack Obama, Holder said. The ensuing nationwide effort to tighten voting regulations was sudden, unprecedented, and conducted largely along party lines.
“Let’s be frank,” Holder said. “Faced with demographic changes that they perceive as going against them and saddled with a governing philosophy at odds with an evolving nation, some Republicans have decided that, if you can’t beat ’em, change the rules. Make it more difficult for those least likely to support Republican candidates to vote.”
The relatively recent idea that widespread voter fraud threatens the republic is illusory, yet useful, Holder said. Republican legislators are using the specter of pernicious electoral mischief to justify more restrictive voter identification laws, which do little to solve a non-existent problem, but do much to depress the voter turnout of the poor, the young, and people of color, he said.
Earlier this year, a federal appellate court in North Carolina ruled that, based on recovered official government emails, Republican lawmakers had used voter identification laws to target African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.”
“This is done with the knowledge that by simply depressing the vote of certain groups, elections can be affected,” Holder said. “This is how elections are rigged.”
Research suggests that the appellate court was correct, Holder said. He cited a study conducted by the University of California, San Diego that discovered that restrictive voter ID laws disproportionately affect Democratic voters, finding that Democratic turnout tended to decrease by 7 percent, and Latino turnout by 10 percent, after such statutes were enacted.
Holder said that although many federal courts have struck down such laws, the current struggle over the future of voting in America rages on. Fifty years after the passage the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the most essential of rights, the right to vote, is being suppressed once again in the interests of short-term political expediency, Holder said.
While the integrity of America’s electoral process is being threatened by politically motivated efforts to warp the outcomes of elections, Holder believes that the American people, as they did 50 years ago, are capable of reversing this alarming trend.
“Now is not the time to retreat in the face of a partisan assault on the most basic of American rights,” Holder said. “This is not just a legal issue—it is also a moral imperative.”