AUSTIN — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowed Tuesday to aggressively uphold the principles of the Voting Rights Act and charged that a Texas redistricting plan would create "precisely the kind of discrimination" that the 46-year-old landmark statute was designed to prevent.
Holder's speech to an audience of 700 at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum came as the Justice Department is challenging Texas and other states over redistricting maps and voter ID laws that minority groups say undercut the act's requirements.
Johnson signed the act into law Aug. 6, 1965. A cornerstone of the law -- Section 5 -- requires all or parts of 16 predominantly Southern states with a history of discrimination, including Texas, to obtain federal approval before changing state election laws.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Texas redistricting case. Some analysts say that considering the current makeup of the court, the justices could overturn all or part of the act.
At least five current lawsuits challenge the constitutionality of Section 5. Holder said his department is prepared to vigorously defend the provision as "a critical tool to combat discrimination and safeguard the right to vote."
Texas officials led by Attorney General Greg Abbott are defending the congressional and legislative redistricting plans enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature, calling them fair and legal.
But Holder reiterated the department's assertion that Texas "has failed to show the absence of discrimination" by not drawing new congressional districts that would strengthen the voting power of Hispanics, who fueled much of the state's population growth over the past decade.
Another controversial law from this year's Legislature -- requiring voters to show photo ID to vote -- is also under Justice Department review.
Holder, without commenting on details of the review, asserted that voter fraud "is unacceptable" but said there is widespread agreement that in-person voting fraud -- the chief target of the new laws -- "is uncommon."
"We must be honest about this," he said.
As a top figure in the Obama administration, the attorney general was venturing into politically hostile territory with his trip to Texas.
Gov. Rick Perry, who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, has called for Holder's resignation for the Justice Department's handling of a controversial weapons trafficking investigation known as Fast and Furious.
More than 100 protesters -- including a busload from the Houston area -- gathered at the library. Some held signs saying "Impeach Holder." They included Tea Party activists and members of a group called True the Vote, which supports voter identification measures as a deterrent to voter fraud.
"He's declaring war on Texas tonight," said J. Christian Adams, who was a Justice Department attorney in President George W. Bush's administration.
But Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU senior legislative counsel, applauded Holder for what she called a "historic address" that reaffirmed the Justice Department's commitment "to protecting access to the ballot so that all Americans have the right to participate in our democracy."
Holder also called for reforms to modernize voter registration and thwart deceptive voting practices.
In a question-and-answer session with library Director Mark Updegrove, Holder said that after taking office, he chose to reinvigorate the department's Civil Rights Division because he felt the unit had "lost its way."