Justice Department Taking Action to Protect Ballot Access

Attorney General Merrick Garland pointed Friday to post-election audits and threats against poll worker threats as trends that will face swift backlash from the federal government.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland delivers remarks on voting rights at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, on Friday. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Justice Department will double the staff of its civil rights enforcement division within the next 30 days and take other actions to protect Americans’ right to the ballot, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday.

Stretching back to detail the adoption of the 15th and 19th amendments — the former prohibiting denying the right to vote based on race, the latter expanding voting rights to women — Garland laid out the move against the history of the transformation of voting rights in America.

When the Justice Department was originally created in 1870, Garland said, it was charged by then-President Ulysses Grant to protect voting rights and provisions set out in the Ku Klux Klan Act — which barred interference with newly adopted rights to vote. As time went on, the legislative and judiciary branches worked in concert to strengthen and fortify protections through statutes like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its subsequent reauthorizations and preclearance protections.

“But in recent years, the protections of federal voting rights law have been drastically weakened,” Garland said. “In 2013, the Shelby County decision effectively eliminated the preclearance protections of the Voting Rights Act, which had been the Department’s most-effective tool to protect voting rights over the past half century. 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.”

Garland noted 14 states that have passed new restrictions against Americans’ right to vote, as well as those jurisdictions that, “based off of disinformation, have utilized abnormal post-election audit methodologies” he said could denigrate American confidence in the electoral process.

“The Civil Rights division has already sent a letter expressing its concern that one of those audits may violate provisions of the Civil Rights Act that require election officials to safeguard federal election records; the very same provisions that form the original basis for the Department’s 1960 investigation in the Lynd case,” Garland said. “The division also expressed concern that the audit may violate a provision of the Voting Rights Act that bars intimidation of voters.”

As for the much ballyhooed but seldom documented specter of election fraud, Garland directly rejected claims the 2020 election had been stolen.

“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 it,” Garland said.

In addition to beefing up its civil rights division, Garland said the Justice Department is scrutinizing laws that restrict access to voting, as well as any laws that or practices that discriminate against Black voters and other minority groups. Where civil rights violations occur, he said, the Justice Department “will not hesitate to act.”

Post-election audits meanwhile will be scrutinized for their adherence to federal statutory requirement to protect election records and refrain from voter intimidation. Finally, the Justice Department will publish guidance that outlines what civil and criminal statutes apply to those audits, along with new guidance on early voting and voting by mail.

As redistricting begins next year, Garland added, Americans can expect guidance to make clear that voting protections apply to all jurisdictions. The Justice Department also will increase its involvement to offer voting access to eligible individuals in federal custody and by assisting other federal agencies in expanding voter registration opportunities.

Garland urged as well that Congress pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but he said the Justice Department would not wait to enforce voting rights while lawmakers fine-tune those pieces of legislation. Partnering with other federal agencies, he said, the Justice Department is committed to actively combatting election disinformation “that intentionally tries to suppress the vote.”

Garland additionally reached out to poll workers and election officials who received numerous death threats and menacing messages after the 2020 election. Alongside the Justice Department’s criminal divisions, the FBI and all U.S. attorneys, the Justice Department is going to investigate and prosecute any violation of federal law against those workers, Garland said.

“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,” Garland said. “We know that expanding the ability of all eligible citizens to vote is a 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.”

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