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Attorney General Merrick Garland announces actions to protect voting rights

In response to the weakening of the federal voting rights law by the Supreme Court in 2013, Attorney General Merrick Garland made a commitment to expand the Justice Department's efforts to protect voting rights, announcing a series of actions aimed at confronting state and local efforts that he said "will make it harder to vote." 

"We are scrutinizing new laws that seek to curb voter access, and where we see violations of federal law, we will not hesitate to act," Garland said at a speech at the Justice Department Friday. "We are also scrutinizing current laws and practices, in order to determine whether they discriminate against Black voters and other voters of color."

Since over a dozen states have passed new laws making it more difficult to vote, Garland pointed to some jurisdictions that, "based on disinformation, have utilized abnormal post-election audit methodologies that may put the integrity of the voting process at risk and undermine public confidence in our democracy."

To counter this, he said that the Justice Department will increase the size of the enforcement unit that tracks state and local efforts to enact voter restrictions and vowed to prosecute those responsible for the rise in violent threats against election workers. 

In the next 30 days the department will be doubling the Civil Rights Division's enforcement staff. The addition of more attorneys and resources comes in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, which saw  an uptick in threats targeting state and local election officials and poll workers and rising disinformation around access to the ballot box. 

Garland pledged the department would "investigate and promptly prosecute" any threats that violate federal law, and committed to partnering with other federal agencies to combat disinformation surrounding elections, which he said "intentionally tries to suppress the vote."

There are currently several Republican-led states considering legislation that would add limits to voting access in the wake of President Trump's electoral loss and a rise in mail-in voting in the 2020 elections due to the coronavirus pandemic. As of mid-May, state legislators have enacted at least 22 bills with restrictive voting provisions in 14 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Congress is considering two major pieces of voting rights legislation, the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the late congressman and civil rights icon. At the end of the month, the Senate will take up the For the People Act, an expansive but controversial voting and elections reform bill, but it is expected to be blocked by Republicans who argue that it is a federal overreach.

The House is currently working on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, or H.R. 4, which has yet to be introduced. The bill would restore a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. 

The Voting Rights Act established a formula to determine which areas should be covered by Section 5, which required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to submit any changes to voting laws to the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges for approval, a practice known as preclearance. But the Supreme Court struck down the formula in Shelby County v. Holder in a 5 to 4 decision along ideological lines.

The House subcommittee that oversees federal elections is currently conducting field hearings to compile evidence on whether racial discrimination in voting is occurring in certain jurisdictions, and create a new formula. Once those hearings are concluded, the bill will be written and considered later this year.

But, like the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act faces significant opposition from Senate Republicans and faces an uphill battle to passage.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson praised Garland's announcement in a statement on Friday, but said that it is "a race against time" to protect voting rights as more restrictive state laws on voting rights are implemented.

"From the appointment of Kristen Clarke (to lead the Civil Rights Division) to the ongoing fight to pass the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we are encouraged by the new tone on voting rights set by the Biden-Harris Administration," Johnson said. "But the uphill battle to protect our most sacred and fundamental right, the right to vote, is far from over. Today's announcement from the Attorney General speaks to the level of urgency that is needed to protect our democracy and ensure that our voices are heard."

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