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Garland zeroes in on voting rights

Civil Rights Division expected to double size of enforcement staff as states debate and implement new voting laws

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and other supporters of the S 1 elections overhaul rally outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and other supporters of the S 1 elections overhaul rally outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced a broad new push Friday to enforce voting rights across the country, touching on politically contentious areas such as post-election audits, early voting, voting by mail, threats against election officials and redistricting after the 2020 census.

“The Civil Rights Division is going to need more lawyers,” Garland said. “We are scrutinizing new laws that seek to curb voter access, and where we see violations, we will not hesitate to act.”

Garland said the Justice Department will double the enforcement staff for that division in the next 30 days, as a wave of states consider or implement new voting laws ahead of the 2022 election.

Garland, a former judge on the federal appeals court in Washington, pointed to a Supreme Court decision from 2013 that wiped out a key enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

That provision had allowed the Justice Department to review election changes in states with a history of discriminatory voting laws and stop them before they went into effect, and “had been the department’s most effective tool to protect voting rights over the past half century,” Garland said.

“Since that opinion, there has been a dramatic rise in legislative efforts that will make it harder for millions of citizens to cast a vote that counts,” he added.

Now, the Justice Department will have to individually challenge new restrictions on voting rights, which can take longer and require more resources. So far this year, at least 14 states have passed new laws that make it harder to vote, he said.

“Many of the changes are not even calibrated to address the kinds of voter fraud that are alleged as their justification,” Garland said.

The Justice Department also will look at current election laws and practices to determine whether they discriminate against Black voters and other voters of color.

“Particularly concerning in this regard are several studies showing that in some jurisdictions, non-white voters must wait in line substantially longer than white voters to cast their ballots,” Garland said.

Garland also gave warning to states that conduct audits of the 2020 election, such as one ongoing in Arizona, to ensure they abide by federal statutory requirements to protect election records and avoid the intimidation of voters.

“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,” the attorney general said.

As other states consider unusual post-election audits similar to Arizona’s, Garland said the Justice Department will publish guidance explaining the civil and criminal statutes that apply to such audits.

The DOJ will also publish guidance with respect to early voting and voting by mail. And the department will issue new guidance “to make clear the voting protections that apply to all jurisdictions, as they redraw their legislative maps,” Garland said.

This will be the first redistricting cycle without the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Texas, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia, as well as counties and townships in six other states, fell under the preclearance regime and will have their freest hand in decades to draw congressional and legislative maps this cycle.

The Justice Department will also partner with other federal agencies to combat election disinformation that intentionally tries to suppress the vote, Garland said, and federal prosecutors will promptly prosecute threats to election officials.

“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.”

Garland also called on Congress to pass overhaul bills that include election provisions. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has said the chamber would vote on the elections, campaign finance and the ethics overhaul, known as S 1, this month. It is not expected to get enough votes to clear a procedural hurdle.

Garland also called on Congress to pass separate voting rights legislation named after the late civil rights icon and Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, that would update the Voting Rights Act and “provide the department with the tools it needs.”

The debate over the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has simmered since the2013 Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down Section 4 of the law. That section created a formula for how states with a history of discriminatory laws had to get Justice Department preclearance for new laws under Section 5.

The conservative justices who formed the majority called it outdated and said Congress “may draft another formula based on current conditions.” Republicans have opposed legislation to do so.

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