Garland Pledges Renewed Efforts to Protect Voting Rights

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick B. Garland laid out an expansive plan on Friday for protecting voting rights, announcing that the Justice Department would double enforcement staff on the issue, scrutinize new state laws that seek to curb voter access and take action if it sees a violation of federal law.

In his first public speech on an issue that has provoked intense partisan conflict in statehouses and in Washington, Mr. Garland served notice to Republicans pushing a raft of restrictive voting laws that he was determined to ensure the right to vote for all Americans.

Mr. Garland did not outline any investigations or specific actions the department might take against states. Nevertheless, his pledge is an about-face from the department’s near abdication of voting rights enforcement under the Trump administration. Over the past four years, the department did not file any new cases under the Voting Rights Act until May of last year, a rare period of silence for one of the most consequential arms for protecting voting rights in the country.

“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 headquarters.

Mr. Garland made a specific commitment to protect the voting rights of people of color, reflecting a return to the traditional role the Justice Department has played in preventing discrimination based on race. Voting rights groups and civil rights activists have argued that many of the new voting laws would have a disproportionate impact on voters of color, and President Biden described the restrictions Georgia passed in March as “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.’’

Without identifying specific states, Mr. Garland made an apparent allusion to the hourslong lines many Black voters faced last year in Georgia’s June primary elections, citing studies showing that “in some jurisdictions, nonwhite voters must wait in line substantially longer than white voters to cast their ballots.’’

He also made a clear reference to Arizona’s Republican-led — and widely derided — recount of two million votes in Maricopa County, saying the department would scrutinize postelection audits “to ensure they abide by federal statutory requirements to protect election records and avoid the intimidation of voters.”

In a statement Friday evening, the department said it had sent a letter to the Arizona Senate, expressing concern over, and explaining federal legal constraints on, the conduct of its continuing postelection audit.

The drive to enact new voting laws has become a core mission of the Republican Party, as former President Donald J. Trump and his allies continue to peddle false claims about a rigged election and call for more states he lost to audit their results despite no evidence of fraud. Pledges to restrict access to voting under the banner of “election integrity” have become commonplace in fund-raising emails and campaign ads from G.O.P. candidates.

Republican-led legislatures in several states including Georgia, Florida and Iowa have passed laws imposing new voting restrictions, and Texas, New Hampshire, Arizona and Michigan, among other states, are considering changes to their electoral systems.

At the same time, hopes have dimmed on the left that Congress will pass two major election bills after Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, said he would not support abolishing the filibuster to advance such measures.

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. The division currently has about a dozen staff members, according to a department official familiar with the staff.

Despite his pledge, Mr. Garland is still limited in what he can do unless Democrats in Congress somehow manage to pass new voter protection laws. He can sue states that are found to have violated any of the nation’s four major federal voting rights laws. He can notify state and local governments when he believes that their procedures violate federal law. And federal prosecutors can charge people who are found to have intimidated voters, a federal crime.

The Justice Department’s most powerful tool, the Voting Rights Act, was significantly weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down pieces of the act forcing states with legacies of racial discrimination to receive Justice Department approval before they could change their voting laws.

Now the department can only sue after a law has been passed and found to violate the act, meaning that a restrictive law could stand through multiple election cycles as litigation winds its way through the courts.

Any new steps to protect voting rights are unlikely to move quickly, said Joanna Lydgate, a former deputy attorney general of Massachusetts who co-founded the States United Democracy Center. “People will need to be patient,” she said.

Still, progressive groups praised the announcement, which is seen as an important bulwark against the new voting laws introduced in all but two states that have Republican-controlled legislatures. There are nearly 400 in total, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive public policy institute that is part of the New York University School of Law.

As of May 14, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the group.

Democrats have filed lawsuits against some new voting laws, but that litigation could take years to wind its way through the courts and may have little power to stop those laws from affecting upcoming elections. And so far, the federal government has not joined the legal fight.

“We need to make sure that the federal government is an active participant in protecting the right to vote,” said Tom Perez, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division during President Barack Obama’s first term. “We can’t simply rely on private lawsuits.”

Conservatives who have crafted and pushed for the new voting laws scoffed at Mr. Garland’s announcement.

“Americans have been clear: they support laws making it easy to vote and hard to cheat in states across the country,” said Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action, which helped write and then organized support for many of the new laws. “Despite the false narrative coming out of the White House and now the Department of Justice, Americans support secure, fair elections, even if the left does not.”

The Justice Department’s curbed abilities to fight voter fraud were amplified under the Trump administration.

“It was a really low point for voting rights enforcement,” said Wendy R. Weisser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. “There’s a lot of ground to be made up obviously, and now there’s unprecedented challenges to voting rights.”

During the 2020 election, the department publicly appeared to be more concerned with hunting for fraud than protecting voting rights. In September, then-Attorney General William P. Barr made numerous false statements about voting by mail in an interview with CNN, and amplified the importance of a minor ballot error in Luzerne County, Pa., making it appear as if it warranted a major fraud investigation.

Mr. Garland expressed skepticism about the use of unorthodox postelection audits, saying they could undermine faith in the nation’s ability to host free and fair elections. He said that some jurisdictions had used disinformation to justify such audits.

Assertions of material voter fraud in the 2020 election “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 Justice Department will publish guidance explaining the civil and criminal statutes that apply to postelection audits, as well as guidance on early voting and voting by mail, and will work with other agencies to combat disinformation, Mr. Garland said.

Republicans have taken aim at specific pillars of voting access, particularly ones utilized during the 2020 election as voters sought safer options amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In an effort to restrict voting by mail, they have sought to limit the number of drop boxes in multiple states, limit who can request mail ballots and add new identification requirements for absentee ballots.

Republican legislatures are also seeking to greatly empower partisan poll watchers across the country. The role, which is meant to simply be an observational check granted to both political parties and all candidates, has grown increasingly controversial as party leaders, including Mr. Trump, have sometimes used militarist language to describe them.

Mr. Garland said that the Justice Department had taken note of a sharp rise “in menacing and violent threats” against state and local election workers. Such threats, he said, undermined the electoral process and violated federal laws.

Mr. Perez said the timing of the department’s involvement in voting laws was crucial. “The most important year in voting is always the year that ends in a 1,” he said. “That’s the year of redistricting, that’s the year in which there’s often a lot of change in state legislatures and that’s the year when you always have a dramatic increase in shenanigans.”

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