Merrick Garland Says DOJ Will ‘Never Stop Working’ To Protect Voting Rights

Republican-led state legislatures across the country are enacting restrictive voting laws in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by people who believed former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election.

The Justice Department wants the public to know it is fighting back.

“Nearly two and a half centuries into our experiment of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ we have learned much about what supports a healthy democracy,” Attorney General Merrick Garland is expected to say at an event on Friday.

“We know that expanding the ability of all eligible citizens to vote is the central pillar. That means ensuring that all eligible voters can cast a vote; that all lawful votes are counted; and that every voter has access to accurate information. The Department of Justice will never stop working to protect the democracy to which all Americans are entitled.”

At the event, Garland will lay out the approach the Justice Department will take to protecting voting rights during the Biden administration. 

The Biden administration has staffed up the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department with a lineup of top officials with deep backgrounds in voting rights. The Senate recently confirmed Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who got her start in the division’s voting section and has spent her career working on civil rights issues.

The administration has also brought in Pam Karlan, a longtime civil rights lawyer who had a big role in voting rights cases during the Obama administration, to a top role in the Civil Rights Division, where she now serves under Clarke.

The Civil Rights Division falls under the oversight of Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, a longtime civil rights advocate who previously headed the Civil Rights Division under former President Barack Obama and who, like Clarke, was a prominent voice for voting rights when she headed the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights during the Trump era.

The Supreme Court struck a major blow to federal oversight of voting rights in 2013 when it narrowly struck down a critical provision of the Voting Rights Act that allowed the federal government to preclear changes to voting rights laws in states with a history of racist voting laws. Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the 5-4 majority opinion, contended that “things have changed dramatically” in the South since the VRA was signed in 1965.

In the nearly eight years since Roberts made that declaration, states controlled by Republicans have been particularly aggressive about tightening voting restrictions, justifying their actions by pointing to mythical beliefs in mass voter fraud unsupported by any evidence.

Now, Trump continues to convince millions of his followers that the election was stolen, and Republican-run states are using that belief to make it harder to vote for communities that tend to vote for the Democratic Party and easier for Republican legislators to overturn election results they don’t like.

With Sen. Joe Manchin refusing to help Democrats overturn partisan Republican election laws making it harder to vote, the Department of Justice and the courts are the last line of defense against these bills.

Black voters are at the heart of Trump’s stolen election myth. After he lost the election, he baselessly alleged corruption in predominantly Black counties that contain major cities like Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. In a series of lawsuits filed after the election, Trump tried to get votes cast in these Black communities thrown out so that he could be declared the winner. He did the same for the heavily Latino counties of Maricopa in Arizona and Clark in Nevada. All of his lawsuits failed.

But now, Republicans are targeting these same populations with laws to suppress votes and take away local control from predominantly Black and Latino communities. In places where Trump could not throw out votes after the last election, they hope to prevent votes from ever being cast before the next one.

Republican-run states have made it harder to cast mail and absentee ballots, reduced early voting, banned local jurisdictions from implementing certain rules to make voting more accessible, and tightened voter identification laws. In some cases, as in Georgia, Republicans have enabled partisan Republican legislators to seize control of local election administration from city and county officials ahead of elections.

Democrats have introduced federal legislation that would reverse many of these voter suppression laws passed almost exclusively on party-line votes by Republicans at the state level. The For The People Act passed the House and is still under consideration in the Senate, but Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) opposes the bill because no Republican supports it.

With Manchin refusing to help Democrats overturn partisan Republican election laws making it harder to vote, the Department of Justice and the courts are the last line of defense against these bills. The courts, however, are dominated by conservative judges appointed by Republican presidents who, by and large, oppose federal voting rights legislation and the enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Justice Department’s voting rights portfolio was pretty anemic during the Trump administration, with former officials saying the administration had abdicated its responsibility to enforce the Voting Rights Act. The administration touted some of its work on protecting the voting rights of military voters ― one of the few areas of voting rights law that Republican administrations focus on ― but did little to proactively protect the rights of voters more broadly.

Trump, after all, continued to insist that massive voter fraud was responsible for his loss of the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. He supported additional restrictions on voting that would have a disparate impact on Democratic-leaning voters. 

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