Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a high-profile speech on Tuesday, urging states to roll back laws that ban an estimated 6 million people, about a third of whom are black, from voting because of felony convictions.
Here’s a closer look:
1. Holder’s comments are largely symbolic
The Obama administration is not pushing some kind of broader legislation to change American voting laws, so Holder’s speech meant little in terms of federal policy. His aim is to get states to change their voting laws, particularly places like Kentucky and Florida that prevent nearly anyone who has committed a felony from ever voting again.
The attorney general was making these comments more as a influential public figure than the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, looking to use his prominent role both to create a public dialogue on this issue and perhaps convince some liberal and moderate state legislators and governors to change laws in their states. (Holder is not popular among Republicans.)
His advocacy immediately brought headlines to a cause usually not covered extensively by the press.
2. This issue is not totally divided on party lines, so movement is possible.
In Kentucky, which currently bars felons from voting unless they are pardoned by the governor, some Republicans, including the U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, support the restoration from voting rights. GOP lawmakers in some other states have also signaled they could consider similar changes.
Politicians like Paul are part of a small but growing number of Republicans who are supportive of rolling back some of the “tough on crime” policies of the 1970s and 1980s, many of which disproportionately and negatively affect blacks. Paul and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, another Republican, have emerged as allies of Holder in looking to reduce sentences for non-violent drug crimes.
To be sure, it’s not clear if the majority of Republicans or Americans overall support this effort or if Holder or Paul’s comments will give it additional movement. For example, Kentucky’s state Senate is controlled by Republicans, and they have so far not embraced the legislation Holder is calling for.
3. Holder and his boss, President Obama, are determined to take on racial issues
President Obama and Holder are both highly aware, according to administration officials who have spoken to them, of their roles as the first black men to hold the jobs of U.S. president and attorney general. They have heard criticism that the administration has not done enough to improve the lives of African-Americans, a critique both reject.
And with Obama now in his sixth year, the president and his team both don’t have to worry about politics as much as before (since Obama was already reelected) and are more intent than ever on burnishing the president’s legacy before he leaves office. So the administration has announced over the last year some policies that unabashedly benefit African-Americans, as well as taken more controversial stands on racial issues. Holder’s comments on voting are part of this shift, as the new initiative for men of color the president is unveiling on Thursday.