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New state laws threaten U.S. voting rights: Holder

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testifies during a hearing on the "Oversight of the Justice Department" held by the Senate Judiciary Commi
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testifies during a hearing on the "Oversight of the Justice Department" held by the Senate Judiciary Commi

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder is venturing deeper into a political thicket over how individual states run elections, saying discrimination based on race or ethnicity still prevents people from voting.

Holder, the chief U.S. law enforcement official, is addressing the issue on the eve of an election year.

His department is responsible for carrying out the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law intended to protect minority voters.

"The reality is that - in jurisdictions across the country - both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common. And we don't have to look far to see recent proof," Holder is expected to say on Tuesday night in a speech in Austin, Texas, according to a draft released in advance.

Holder criticizes, for instance, new maps that Texas Republicans drew this year for legislative districts.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in January involving a complaint by minority groups that the redrawn maps illegally disadvantage Hispanics. The Justice Department also has objected to the maps.

Holder says in his speech that his department is still reviewing state laws, supported by Republicans, that require voters to show photo identification. He says the review will be "thorough" and "fair," though it discusses the laws in the context of voter disenfranchisement.

Holder's speech may intensify a conflict with congressional Republicans, who are also clashing over the Justice Department's efforts to block state immigration laws.

Responding to Holder's comments, Republican Senator John Cornyn said the identification laws are a constitutional way to prevent fraud. "Facing an election challenge next year, this administration has chosen to target efforts by the states to protect the democratic process," Cornyn said.

Holder, a Democratic appointee, is scheduled to deliver the speech at a library named for President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the 1965 voting law. Holder is the first ever black U.S. attorney general. (Reporting by David Ingram)