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Dem Senators Urge DOJ To Use 'Full Power' To Scrutinize Voter ID Laws

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The letter -- written by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and signed by Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV), Sens. Dick Durbin (IL), Chuck Schumer (NY), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Sherrod Brown (OH), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Jeff Merkley (OR), Mark Begich (AK), Ben Cardin (MD), Mary Landrieu (LA), Patty Murray (WA), Ron Wyden (OR), Tom Harkin (IA), Herb Kohl (WI) and Tom Udall (NM) -- comes as Wisconsin, South Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Kansas and Tennessee have already passed voter ID measures.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) questioned DOJ's Thomas Perez about the Department's review of voter ID laws at a hearing earlier this month. Perez said that the Justice Department was reviewing all of the laws that had been passed under Section 2 and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

But the Justice Department's ability to step in to stop voter ID measures is hampered by a 2008 Supreme Court decision which found that Indiana's state voter ID law was constitutional. Indiana provides IDs free of charge to the poor and allows those who don't have IDs to cast provisional ballots.

A Justice Department spokeswoman confirmed receiving the letter and said DOJ was "monitoring, as we routinely do, this type of legislative activity in the states."

TPM's full coverage of voter ID developments is available here.

The text of the letter is reprinted 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.

[Correction: the letter was signed by 16, not 15, members of the Senate.]