The Justice Department is mounting an aggressive effort to challenge restrictive state voting laws on civil rights grounds and to marshal resources across the government to ensure voters – especially minorities – are not disenfranchised, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday.
“There are many things that are open to debate in America, but the right of all eligible citizens to vote is not one of them,” Garland said in remarks at the department’s Great Hall, a venue choice that underscored the gravity of Garland’s message.
The attorney general said that within 30 days, DOJ would double the number of lawyers assigned to protect voting rights. Further, he said, Justice will “vigorously use existing laws, including the Voting Rights Act, the Motor Voter Act, the Help America Vote Act and more, to aggressively protect the right to vote.”
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The moves are a clear message to Congress and to the 14 states that have already moved to make it harder for people to vote: The Biden administration isn’t waiting around for Congress to act before taking unilateral action.
That theme may be played out in other arenas, such as the creation of a comprehensive infrastructure plan, if Congress cannot come to terms. Biden’s proposed massive infrastructure bill has failed to get enough support in the Senate to survive a filibuster. Biden says he is hopeful for a bipartisan compromise, but the White House has noted that the program could be passed with Democratic support only, as part of a budget reconciliation bill that cannot be filibustered.
Voting rights is viewed as especially critical by Democrats, since decennial redistricting and a slew of restrictive voting laws threaten to put Democrats in the minority in 2022 and beyond.
Biden has also presented the issue as a broader question of the survival of democracy itself in America, particularly in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, a widespread disinformation campaign and “audits” of 2020 elections already deemed legitimate by state elections officials and state and federal courts.
The president wants Congress to pass both the For the People Act, also known as S1, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, legislation aimed at expanding ways to vote and preventing states from doing things like shortening voting hours or imposing onerous restrictions that make it harder for certain groups – especially minority and disabled voters – to cast ballots.
Senate Democrats have not been able to muster enough support to pass S1. All Republicans oppose the sweeping package, and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia announced recently he is opposed to the measure. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named for the late, legendary civil rights activist-turned Democratic congressman, is more limited. It puts back the preclearance states needed before making certain voting changes, forcing them to prove they were not disenfranchising Black voters.
In a landmark case, the Supreme Court in 2013 removed the preclearance requirement, saying it was based on 40-year-old data and needed updating by Congress. Soon after the Shelby County v. Holder ruling, GOP-run states moved to enact new voting rules. Texas put in place a strict voter ID law within 24 hours after the ruling. North Carolina also imposed a voter ID requirement, shortened the early voting period and eliminated same-day registration.
More recently, Georgia Republicans, stunned by Biden’s win there in the 2020 election and the victories of two Democratic senators who gave their party the effective majority in the Senate, passed voting rules that have been attacked as a way to discourage voting in Black and low-income areas. For example, the law makes it illegal to hand out food and bottled water to people waiting in long lines to vote.
Those states, post-Shelby, no longer have to convince the courts they are not doing anything nefarious to suppress the vote. But Garland said the Department of Justice could use existing civil rights law to step in. He said the agency will review new and existing state laws for violations and will publish new guidance on early voting, mail voting and voting audits.
Garland’s announcement was welcomed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“The right to vote is the cornerstone of a well-functioning democracy,” the group’s president, Damon Hewitt, said in a statement. Garland “affirmed the importance of enforcing federal law to protect the franchise for all voters,” Hewitt said.
The attorney general did not commit to joining lawsuits challenging the new state laws, but experts see that as a natural next step, if violations are found.
Garland noted the intimidation and death threats made against both high-level state elections officials and volunteer poll workers and said the Department of Justice and the FBI would investigate and prosecute perpetrators.
“Democracy is not a state, it is an act. And each generation must do its part,” Garland said. “Thanks to all of your work, the Department of Justice will always stand up to ensure the survival of the central pillar of our democracy.”