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Obama to continue voting rights efforts, activists say

U.S. President Barack Obama greets members of the audience as he honors the San Francisco Giants, the 2012 World Series champions baseball t
U.S. President Barack Obama greets members of the audience as he honors the San Francisco Giants, the 2012 World Series champions baseball t

By Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama pledged on Monday to continue to fight racial discrimination at the ballot box despite a legal setback at the Supreme Court, civil rights activists said after a meeting with him at the White House.

The activists said they were reassured after a meeting with the president, Attorney General Eric Holder and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez that the administration will fight any efforts to suppress minority voting even after the Supreme Court struck down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

"It was ... very encouraging to see how much the Department of Justice is strategizing and positioning itself to be a real force combating racial discrimination," Barbara Arnwine, the president of the Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, told reporters.

"They're thinking very strategically, and broadly, and they're looking at the full array of voting laws that they can use," she said.

Marc Morial, head of the National Urban League, said after the meeting that he was encouraged by the president's strong commitment to preserve voting rights for minorities.

National voter registration laws are one tool administration officials think they can use to combat state laws that they believe make it harder for minority voters to cast their ballots, Arnwine added.

Despite progress on civil rights over the last 50 years and Obama's election as the first African American president, race and access to voting remain contentious issues in U.S. politics, particularly in the South.

Civil rights groups were dismayed when the nation's highest court in June voided part of a law aimed at ensuring that minorities would not be unfairly prevented from voting.

Since minorities traditionally favor Democrats over Republicans, the debate has implications for the elections in 2014 when Republicans hope to extend their majority in the House of Representatives and reverse the thin majority Democrats hold in the Senate.

The activists said they plan to focus on state laws they consider discriminatory.

"All these states legislatures are passing all these bad laws, and they're obviously anticipating 2014," Arnwine said.

After the Supreme Court disappointment, civil rights groups were cheered by the Justice Department's announcement last week that it would ask a federal court for renewed power to block new election laws in Texas it says are discriminatory.

Participants in the meeting said laws in North Carolina and Florida were potential targets for future administration action.

They said appointment of an assistant attorney general for civil rights, a position left open when Perez was named labor secretary, would be another important step.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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