Contributors

Jeff Session's appointment raises specter of prosecuting voting rights activists

Albert Turner was a leader in the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" march for voting rights in Selma, Ala., walking with Rep. John Lewis and others. The televised scenes of marchers being beaten by police helped push the public to support the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

A leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Turner also carried the casket of Rev. Martin Luther King after his assassination.

Nearly two decades later in 1985, Turner found himself in a federal courtroom, facing charges of voter fraud.

The criminal charges against Turner, his wife, and another voting rights activist were brought by none other than President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who at the time was a federal prosecutor.

Sessions argued that the activists filled out ballots for voters-rather than merely assisting them-during the 1984 election and that they changed some ballots without voters' permission. The prosecution was widely criticized as an effort to intimidate or silence voting rights activists in Alabama, and the jury refused to convict any of the defendants.

Turner said the indictments came because black voters had fought for "political empowerment in the Black Belt of Alabama."

The case was the first prosecution of voting rights activists in decades.

A year later, Sessions was nominated to be a federal judge. But a Republican Senate narrowly voted against confirmation, after criticism of the Turner case and several racist statements that Sessions allegedly made.

Now, Trump wants Sessions to be the head of the Department of Justice-which, if confirmed, would place Sessions in charge of enforcing the Voting Rights Act on behalf of the federal government.

If he is confirmed as Attorney General during his Senate hearing Tuesday, will Sessions try to use the FBI or the Department of Justice to once again persecute voting rights activists?

It's entirely possible. And recent actions at the state level suggest that some Republican officials may be looking beyond indirect voter suppression measures-such as voter ID laws and cuts to early voting-and are instead considering more direct means of keeping citizens from registering to vote or casting a ballot.

Take North Carolina and Indiana, for example, where the idea that voting rights activists should face criminal charges has been resurrected by officials.

In North Carolina, Republicans filed complaints in November against a voter registration group operating in Bladen County, claiming a "massive scheme to run an absentee ballot mill." The head of the state Republican Party said, "Somebody is going to prison." The complaints were dismissed by Republican-controlled elections boards.

In Indiana, police raided the office of the Indiana Voter Registration Project last October, just one month before the election. The action delayed the group from registering thousands of voters. Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson accused the group of submitting "forged" registration applications and implied that it was composed of "nefarious actors."

After the election, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, former governor of Indiana, gave Lawson a public service award.

If confirmed to head the Department of Justice, Sessions could join these officials in prosecuted those who help others vote, or he could merely have the Department acquiesce to voter suppression.

Thirty years ago, a Republican-controlled Senate concluded that Sessions was too racist to be a federal judge. The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony that Sessions had joked about liking the Ku Klux Klan and had called a black attorney who worked for him "boy."

Sessions allegedly called a white civil rights lawyer a "disgrace to his race." Sessions' advocates are touting him as a champion of civil rights, but the NAACP and other civil rights groups argue that nothing could be further from the truth.

The idea of federal prosecutors-once again-bringing charges against voting rights activists is disturbing, to say the least. The Senate Judiciary Committee should again take a close look at Sessions' civil rights record, and should demand that Sessions answer questions about his views on the Turner case and about the role of the Department of Justice in protecting voting rights. The American public deserves to know whether federal law enforcement agencies or prosecutors will prosecute those who want to help others vote.

Michele Jawando is the Vice President of Legal Policy at the Center for American Progress, and Billy Corriher is the Director of Research for Legal Progress at the Center.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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