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In certain circles, it has become fashionable to believe that the Voting Rights Act is an outdated vestige of a crueler time, an unnecessary bit of bureaucracy that imposes its own injustices. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed that view when it threw out one of the act’s more powerful provisions.

Those who believe that the Voting Rights Act is an artifact of a bygone era eagerly point out that the nation has elected its first black president — proof, they say, that racism is dead. In that view, the right to vote is guaranteed and each person is equally represented in the political system of this great democracy.

Eric Holder, the outgoing attorney general, knew better. He understood that the right to vote is under assault, and he did what he could to protect it, starting with a rehabilitation of the Civil Rights Division, which had fallen into dysfunction in the administration of George W. Bush. That may be Holder’s defining accomplishment.

During the Bush era, conservative partisans launched the most insidious onslaught against minority voting rights since the 1960s: the voter ID movement. Claiming, falsely, that the ballot needs more protection against fraud, they promoted restrictive voting laws in state legislatures around the country. Those partisans had their own agents within the Civil Rights Division, where they worked to ensure that dubious voter ID laws would not undergo any scrutiny.

Their mischief making has largely succeeded, not only in disenfranchising legitimate voters, but also in fooling the public about their intent. Polls show overwhelming support for laws that supposedly protect against fraud.

But make no mistake about it: Voter ID laws have next to nothing to do with protecting the ballot box. Instead, they are a relatively clever assault on the right to vote. As the nation has become browner, the GOP has found that neither its politicians nor its policies are popular among voters of color. So, rather than adopt a more inclusive brand of politics, the party has decided that denying the franchise to even a few hundred Democratic-leaning voters can be useful.

How do they accomplish that? Most of the state legislatures that have enacted such laws — and most of those are dominated by Republicans — have insisted that voters use a driver’s license as proof of identity. Research has shown that poor black and Latino voters, who usually vote for Democrats, are less likely to have automobiles than white voters.

Some elderly voters don’t even have birth certificates because they were born at home in an era when such documents were not required for daily life. In Texas, for example, voting rights groups say some rural residents would have to travel 100 miles to get proper documents.

But isn’t this necessary to prevent voter fraud? In fact, research has also shown that in-person fraud of the sort that voter ID laws are designed to prevent is virtually nonexistent. No matter what you’ve heard about voter fraud, you’ve probably not heard of a case of voter impersonation. In other words, no one shows up at the polls claiming to be John Boehner except John Boehner.

With that in mind, Holder entered the fray, sending Justice Department lawyers to challenge onerous voting requirements, including provisions in some states that sought to roll back conveniences such as early voting. They mounted successful challenges in Texas, South Carolina and Florida.

Even after the Supreme Court gutted the VRA, the Justice Department has kept up the good fight. It has filed suit against a restrictive law in North Carolina and joined lawsuits in Ohio and Wisconsin. Ultimately, some of those cases will likely end up before the nation’s highest court — and many civil rights lawyers are predicting the worst. A Supreme Court that doesn’t mind showing its partisan stripes could effectively abolish the Voting Rights Act.

But that will only make the work of the Civil Rights Division more important, not less. Here’s hoping that Holder’s successor is up to the job.

Cynthia Tucker won Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.

Photo: Kelley Minars via Flickr

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