Justice Department to increase legal staff amid surge in restrictive voting laws

By: - June 14, 2021 12:50 am

Voters in line. Photo by John McCosh.

WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice announced Friday that it is doubling its enforcement attorneys who will work to protect voting rights.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement came as Republicans in state legislatures introduce and pass restrictive voting laws, such as limiting ballot boxes and requiring voter identification.

“We are scrutinizing new laws that seek to curb voter access, and where we see violations, we will not hesitate to act,” Garland said.

At the same time, sweeping voting and elections legislation backed by Democrats and already passed by the U.S. House appears unlikely to advance in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.

Garland did not specify how many lawyers the Justice Department would be adding, but said that within 30 days the agency would double its enforcement staff. The agency did not respond to requests for comment about how many lawyers would be hired.

He added that the DOJ will also be a watchdog on any post-election audits, such as the recount efforts currently underway in Arizona.

“The Justice Department will, of course, do everything in its power to prevent election fraud, and if found, to vigorously prosecute it,” Garland said.

“But many of these post-election audits and restrictions on voting have relied on assertions of material vote fraud in the 2020 (presidential) 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 added that many of the new voting laws in response to the 2020 presidential election “are not even calibrated to address the kinds of voter fraud that are alleged as their justification.”

Republican-controlled legislatures in 14 states have passed 22 new laws that advocates and Democrats say would make voting more difficult, particularly for people of color, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute. That includes Georgia and Florida.

“The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy,” Garland said.

During his speech, Garland called on Congress to pass two bills that would protect and expand voting rights, S.1, known as the For the People Act, and H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. S.1 is a comprehensive voting rights package that would expand mail-in ballots, automatically register citizens to vote and overhaul campaign financing.

H.R. 4 would put back into place a preclearance requirement that states with historical practices of racial discrimination get approval from the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to voting laws. That mandate was struck down in a 2013 Supreme Court decision.

Garland added that the criminal section of the Civil Rights Division within the DOJ, along with other law enforcement agencies, would prosecute any threats to state and local election workers.

“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,” he said. “Such threats undermine our electoral process and violate a myriad of federal laws.”

The protection of voting rights is a priority for the Biden administration. The president gave a speech to mark the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, and the administration released a fact sheet Friday detailing strides it’s made to protect voting rights.

“Plain and simple, these voter suppression laws are meant to attack Americans’ constitutional rights—especially people of color—and that is absolutely unacceptable to the President,” according to the fact sheet released by the White House.

Congressional Democrats have held a host of hearings in the House and Senate on voting rights and have listened to concerns from witnesses about the Republican-led effort to introduce and pass voting laws in dozens of states.

A panel on the House Administration Committee held a hearing Friday to examine how the placement of a polling station can interfere or add restrictions to a voter’s access to the ballot.

One of the witnesses, Stephen Pettigrew, the director of data and science at the University of Pennsylvania, said in his opening statement that a “voter’s race is one of the strongest predictors of how long they wait in line to vote.”

“Policies like precinct closures, shorter voting hours, and voter ID laws can lengthen lines in polling places, particularly those with a high share of non-white registrants,” he said.

Pettigrew added: “My research shows that the gap in wait times between white and non-white voters is more than simply an urban/rural divide, although that divide also exists. Even within a given urban, suburban, or rural county, lines tend to be longer in neighborhoods and precincts with higher concentrations of non-white voters.”

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance. Before joining States Newsroom, Ariana covered public health and chemical policy on Capitol Hill for E&E News. As a Florida native, she's worked for the Miami Herald and her hometown paper, the Tampa Bay Times. Her work has also appeared in the Chicago Tribune and NPR. She is a graduate of the University of Florida.

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