Garland Details Justice Dept. Plan to Protect Voting Rights
The attorney general says he will add to voting-rights law enforcement staff and scrutinize new laws that curb voter access.
Merrick Garland announces Justice Dept. plans to protect voting access.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland has said that protecting the right to vote is one of his top priorities as attorney general.Credit…Pool photo by Stefani Reynolds
By Katie Benner
June 11, 2021, 1:05 p.m. ET
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland laid out a detailed plan on Friday for protecting voting rights, announcing that the Justice Department would double enforcement staff on the issue, scrutinize new laws that seek to curb voter access and act if it sees a violation of federal law.
Mr. Garland announced his plan as Republican-led state legislatures push to enact new restrictive voting laws, and amid dwindling chances for sweeping federal voter protection laws introduced by Democrats.
“To meet the challenge of the current moment, we must rededicate the resources of the Department of Justice to a critical part of its original mission: enforcing federal law to protect the franchise for all eligible voters,” Mr. Garland said in an address at the department.
The Justice Department will also scrutinize current laws and practices to determine whether they discriminate against nonwhite voters, he said. It was not clear how many people work on voting rights enforcement, nor what the total would be after the department adds to the staffing levels.
In more than a dozen states, at least 22 new laws have been passed that make it more difficult to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive public policy institute that is part of the New York University School of Law.
Mr. Garland also said that the department was monitoring the use of unorthodox postelection audits that could undermine faith in the nation’s ability to host free and fair elections, adding that some jurisdictions have used disinformation to justify such audits.
“Many of the justifications proffered in support of these postelection audits and restrictions on voting have relied on assertions of material vote fraud in the 2020 election that have been refuted by the 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,” Mr. Garland said.
The department’s Civil Rights Division has sent a letter expressing concerns that one of those audits may have violated the Civil Rights Act, Mr. Garland said, in part because it could violate a provision in the act that bars voter intimidation. He did not specify which state, but in Arizona, a weekslong audit is widely seen as a partisan exercise to nurse grievances about Donald J. Trump’s election loss.
The Justice Department will publish guidance explaining the civil and criminal statutes that apply to postelection audits and guidance on early voting and voting by mail, and will work with other agencies to combat disinformation.
Democrats have sued over some new voting laws, but that litigation could take years to resolve and may have little power to stop those laws from affecting upcoming elections.
Two major federal election bills — the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — are also the subject of fierce debate in Congress.
Earlier this week, Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, said that he would oppose the For the People Act, dashing hopes among progressives that the far-reaching bill intended to fight voter suppression would become law.
Mr. Garland has said that protecting the right to vote is one of his top priorities as attorney general, and his top lieutenants include high-profile voting rights advocates such as Vanita Gupta, the department’s No. 3 official, and Kristen Clarke, the head of the Civil Rights Division.
Ms. Clarke’s long career advocating on behalf of voting rights protections — including at the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the New York attorney general’s office and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — will make her a key player in the Justice Department’s work to preserve voting access.
But that work is made more difficult by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down pieces of the Voting Rights Act that forced states with legacies of racial discrimination to receive Justice Department approval before they could change their voting laws.