Garland vows fight against voting limits that violate law

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday the Department of Justice (DOJ) would double its voting rights staff while condemning a number of recently passed state laws and issuing a stern warning that the department would combat voter restrictions that run afoul of the law.

Garland said the department will also take measures to limit gerrymandering while setting guidelines for absentee and mail voting ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

“We are scrutinizing new laws that seek to curb voter access, and where we see violations, we will not hesitate to act,” Garland said during a speech in Washington. “We are also scrutinizing current laws and practices in order to determine whether they discriminate against Black voters and other voters of color.”

Garland pointed to 14 “new laws that make it harder to vote,” including a Georgia law that made headlines for barring distributing food or water to voters waiting in line while also imposing new limits on absentee voting.

The attorney general said the DOJ needs to be “clear eyed” about a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The provision gave the DOJ so-called preclearance authority, allowing the department to screen proposed changes to voting procedures in states with a history of racial discrimination in elections.

“Today we are again without a preclearance provision. So again, the Civil Rights Division is going to need more lawyers,” he said.

The Justice Department during former President Trump’s administration did not hire a single outside attorney for the voting rights section and left the department with just 15 voting rights lawyers — about half the number that staffed the section during former President Obama’s tenure.

A review of pending state legislation from the Brennan Center for Justice found that a wave of bills with restrictive voting provisions, warning that the activity is outpacing other years and leaving “the United States is on track to far exceed its most recent period of significant voter suppression.”

Without preclearance, DOJ is left to challenge laws after the fact, using a portion of the law that bars discrimination on the basis of race, color or membership in a “language minority group.” But it confronts DOJ lawyers with a legal bar that can be difficult to clear and can leave laws lingering as the department seeks to prove a new statute has a discriminatory impact.

Garland implored Congress to pass new measures to bolster the DOJ’s voting rights authority, though his calls are likely to fall on deaf ears.

The Democratic-controlled House in March passed a sweeping voting rights bill, along party lines, that would greatly enhance voting protections. But that legislation is unlikely to clear the 60-vote threshold needed in the Senate. 

A narrower measure, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named after the late congressman, would restore preclearance authority to the DOJ. But it too is unlikely to garner enough votes in the Senate, where Democrats hold the slimmest of majorities.

Still, Garland said the department would apply existing powers under the Voting Rights Act and other legal authorities “to ensure that we protect every qualified American seeking to participate in our democracy.”

The series of new guidance promised by Garland show a DOJ eager to issue warning shots to states as new voting laws and legislative maps are increasingly challenged in court.

State legislatures are preparing to use Census data to draw new legislative districts — the first round of maps set to drop since DOJ lost its preclearance ability.

“We will publish new guidance to make clear the voting protections that apply to all jurisdictions as they redraw the legislative maps,” he said, adding the department would also issue similar guidance “with respect to early voting and voting by mail.” 

Garland also took aim at Arizona’s ongoing audit of the 2020 election and other efforts he said undermine confidence in voting while relying on disinformation. 

He said states can expect guidance “explaining the civil and criminal statutes that apply to post election audits.”

“Many of the justifications proffered in support of these post election audits and restrictions on voting have relied on assertions of material vote fraud in the 2020 election that have been refuted by law enforcement and intelligence agencies of both this administration and the previous one, as well as by every court — federal and state — that has considered them,” he said.

The attorney general also emphasized that DOJ’s criminal division has a role to play in protecting elections. Garland said there’s been an uptick in threats against election officials, and vowed that federal prosecutors and law enforcement will “investigate and promptly prosecute” offenders.

“We have not been blind to the dramatic increase in menacing and violent threats against all manner of state and local election workers, ranging from the highest administrators to volunteer poll workers,” Garland said. “Such threats undermine our electoral process and violate a myriad of federal laws.”


Tags 1965 Voting Rights Act Donald Trump John Lewis Merrick Garland voting restrictions

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