Attorney General Eric Holder and first lady Michelle Obama weighed in Saturday on a battleground in the 2012 election: voting rights.
Speaking at the Congressional Black Caucus Gala, Holder said voting rights are more than a partisan issue, while Obama recalled the pains many withstood in the civil rights struggle. The right to cast a ballot, she said, is significant, important, and should be protected.
Holder said he pledged to "not allow the arc of American history, which has always been about expanding the electorate, to be halted.
"Following in the tradition of Democratic and Republican attorneys general, we will not stand by and allow the voting rights of American citizens to be impinged by specious arguments and by those who seek naked political advantage," he continued. "This is not a political issue."
Rather, Holder said, "This is an American issue and goes to the heart of who we say we are as a nation. The right to vote will be protected."
Fourteen states have restrictions currently in effect which "have the potential to impact the 2012 election," according to a review of laws and executive orders by The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Its September 7 analysis said additional laws are pending in six states.
Some Republicans have pressured Holder to stop Justice Department investigations and lawsuits into voting-related practices in several states. At a Congressional hearing this summer, Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, said "We are seeing voter registration fraud and we're seeing voter fraud."
Rep. Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, described the Justice Department's efforts as "seeking headlines opposing voter ID laws that an overwhelming majority of Americans support."
The National Conference of State Legislatures characterizes the voter identification laws in five states as "strict photo" ID and says two additional states could join that rank this fall. Six other states have less stringent photo identification laws, the organization says.
Holder was at the ceremony receiving an award, and the first lady's comments came during her keynote address.
Recalling the civil rights struggle, Michelle Obama said, "The connection between our laws and our lives isn't always as obvious as it was 50 or 150 years ago. And as a result, it's sometimes easy to assume that the battles in our courts and our legislatures have all been won. "
Voting, she suggested, is taken for granted by too many who do not appreciate what "so many folks sacrificed so much so that we could make our voices heard."
"Today, how many of us have asked someone whether they're going to vote, and they say, 'No, I'm too busy - and besides, I voted last time,' or, 'Nah, it's not like my vote is going to make a difference,'" Obama said.
"So when it comes to casting our ballots, it cannot just be 'we the people' who had time to spare on Election Day," she added. "Can't just be 'we the people' who really care about politics, or 'we the people' who happened to drive by a polling place on the way home from work. It must be all of us."
She did not specifically address voting laws, but stressed the importance of registering people to vote, calling it "the movement of our era."
"We cannot let anyone discourage us from casting our ballots," Obama said. "We cannot let anyone make us feel unwelcome in the voting booth. It is up to us to make sure that in every election, every voice is heard and every vote is counted."
The first lady specifically recalled the effort made by a founding Congressional Black Caucus member, Georgia Rep. John Lewis.
At a civil rights march, Lewis, she said, "faced down that row of billy clubs on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, risking his life so we could one day cast our ballots."
The congressman recalled extraordinary measures once employed to keep people away from the polls - such as pass a "so-called literacy test, pay a poll tax" - in a passionate speech this year at the Democratic National Convention.
"Today," he continued in that speech, "it is unbelievable that there are Republican officials who are trying to stop some people from voting."
Among the states that have enacted or are pursuing changes to their voting laws are Florida, which this summer began an effort to remove ineligible voters; Ohio, which scrapped several days of pre-election in-person voting for most voters; and New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Texas, which have passed photo identification laws.
Several states considering changes to their procedures are required to submit plans to the Justice Department for approval, under a law affecting states with a history of discrimination.