Attorney General Merrick Garland said Friday that the Justice Department will dramatically increase its focus on preventing voter suppression by doubling the number of lawyers in the civil rights division, in response to a rash of laws that have made it harder to vote in many states.
“We will use all existing provisions … to ensure that we protect every qualified American seeking to participate in our democracy,” Garland said in a speech Friday afternoon.
Garland compared his action to that taken by former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who said that the Justice Department needed “a lot more lawyers” to combat laws in Southern states that were trying to make it harder for African Americans to exercise their right to vote. Kennedy led the department from 1961 to 1964.
Garland said that the modern Justice Department is in a similar position to Kennedy’s DOJ because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which essentially eliminated the policy of “preclearance.”
“The Shelby County decision eliminated critical tools for protecting voting rights,” Garland said.
In numerous states controlled almost entirely by Republicans, there has been a rash of laws proposed and passed in the name of election integrity to make it harder to vote. Some expansions being rolled back were made to accommodate needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the new laws have been pushed by many Republicans who continue to spread the baseless rumors and lies about the 2020 presidential election that former President Donald Trump started and continues to talk about.
There has also been a host of laws passed and proposed by mostly Republican legislatures to give state politicians the ability to interfere with elections and even to overturn an election result.
The Shelby decision removed the requirement for state or local governments with a history of racial discrimination to seek permission from the Justice Department before making “changes to state election law — however innocuous — until they have been pre-cleared by federal authorities in Washington, D.C.” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 5-4 majority opinion that “things have changed dramatically” since the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act, and that “problems remain in these states and others, but there is no denying that, due to the Voting Rights Act, our nation has made great strides.” Nine states were covered by the law in 1965, and counties and townships in five other states came under the act in its subsequent renewals.
Garland on Friday called preclearance the “most effective tool to protect voting rights over the last half-century.”
“Today we are again without a preclearance provision, so again the civil rights division is going to need more lawyers,” said Garland, who noted that the doubling of staff will happen in the next 30 days.
Garland also criticized the growing number of states where Republicans who are loyal to Trump are using the falsehoods about the 2020 election to push for new rounds of audits of the results. In Arizona, Republicans in the state Legislature were the first to organize another redundant examination of the vote that has been condemned by voting experts and even Republican officials in the state as amateurish and pointless. But Trump loyalists in other states are seeking to follow suit.
Garland said the audit may have violated federal statutes that deal with the safekeeping of election results, and others that deal with voter intimidation.
The attorney general said the DOJ is also going to step up its investigation and prosecution of “menacing and violent threats” made against election officials at the state and local level, which he said have been on the rise.
On Friday, Tricia Raffensperger, the wife of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, spoke publicly for the first time with Reuters about the many death threats the couple has received because her husband has called out Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.
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