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The COVID-19 pandemic and elections took place simultaneously, prompting officials to expand absentee and mail-in voting. Former President Donald Trump increased his war against election fraud — so-called red states followed suit, enacting laws to restrict voter access severely. On June 11, 2021, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced his office would push to enforce voting rights across the United States.
Voting is the very foundation upon which this country was founded. Is it possible for the United States to enact a national law to ensure legally held elections in every state? The U.S. constitution indicates it is possible; Article I Section 4 gives the states rights of the places, times, and manners in how they hold elections for Representatives and Senators — “but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” 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.
He continued discussing the current strife within the country and Congress surrounding voting rights. The rights of every eligible citizen to cast a ballot “is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all other rights untimely flow.” The U.S. has a history of expanding and enforcing voting rights with subsequent periods of intense backlash, much like the country is embroiled in now.
Trump’s refusal to accept his loss at the polls on Nov. 7, 2020, and his endless ranting about the theft of his reelection are why legislators introduced 361 bills suppressing voting rights in the last six months.
On March 9, 2021, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and forwarded it to the Senate; it has not been called to the floor for a vote. Earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared, there is no point vote on the bill since it is not needed.
H.R. 4 addresses President Joe Biden’s executive order of March 7. which called on Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, originally signed into law that August by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
After a flurry of legal challenges, the United States Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in several rulings between 1965-1969, and in 1970 Section 5 was extended for five years.
On August 6, 1975, President Gerald Ford added amendments banning literacy tests and other prejudicial voting rules and required locales with significant numbers of non-English-speaking eligible voters to provide directions and aid in registering and casting ballots.
President Ronald Reagan extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years. His revision made it easier for those with disabilities and the elderly to vote.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 came once again before the United States Supreme Court in 2013 when it struck down a key stipulation. It “required certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to receive approval, known as preclearance, from the federal government before making changes to their voting rules,” according to CBS News.
This bill created a formula to determine the areas that should be covered under Section 5. It remained but could not be implemented without the methodology, and no one bothered to update the formula. Garland pressed Congress to draft another based on current data — Republicans have and will most likely resist creating such legislation.
In his decision, Chief Justice John Roberts asserted the formula was based on 40-year-old facts, having no logical connection to 2013. His inability to recognize systemic racism formed his decision. Roberts said the country had changed, and any racial discrimination in voting it too much. He added it was up to Congress to pass legislation to rewrite the preclearance laws under Section 5.
With the filibuster in place, the Senate will not pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act even if it comes up for a vote. Nonetheless, Garland beseeched Congress to pass the legislation that is named after the late civil rights icon Former Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), explaining it will update the Voting Rights Act and provide the Justice Department with the tools it needs to enforce the law.
If the new laws do not pass, he warned the DOJ would not wait for Congress to act to begin their work investigating the restrictions of voting rights in Black and Brown communities.
While speaking during a Senate Appropriations hearing on June 11, 2021, Garland talked about fixing racial and economic discrimination in voting rights. He vowed he would enforce voter’s ability to easily and safely cast their ballots.
“The Civil Rights Division is going to need more lawyers,” he said. They are examining new laws that seek to suppress voter access. “Where we see violations, we will not be hesitant to act.”
To do so, the United States Department of Justice will double its staff in that division in the next month to investigate and deal with the surge of states considering or implementing new voting laws before the 2022 midterm elections.
He noted that many of the states’ new laws limiting voting rights “are not even calibrated to address the kinds of voter fraud that are alleged as their justification.”
The Civil Rights Division will need to challenge new voting rights restrictions individually. Garland explained this would take a long time and require more resources.
Additionally, the department will look at the current election laws and practices to ascertain whether they discriminate against Black and Brown voters. He said he is particularly concerned about studies showing that non-white voters must wait in line significantly longer than white voters to cast their ballots in some precincts.
Garland warned states currently conducting audits of the 2020 General Election to make sure they abide by federally sanctioned requirements to protect election records and avoid intimidating voters. In addition, he advised the Senators that the DOJ will issue guidance regarding early voting and voting by mail and issuing mandates to clearly outline voting rights that apply to all precincts as they redraw their congressional maps.
He made himself clear that the department will actively pursue voting rights for all Americans – Black, brown, and white. Additionally, Garland and his team will do everything in their power to ensure the foundation of this democracy does not crumble.
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
Roll Call: Garland zeros in on voting rights; by Todd Ruger
Politico: Garland declares voting rights expansion ‘central’ to democracy
Brennan Center for Justice: Voting Laws Roundup: March 2021
CBS News: John Lewis voting rights bill faces bleak future in the Senate after McConnell deems it “unnecessary;” by Grace Segers
Library of Congress: The Founders and the Vote
History: Voting Rights Milestones in America: A Timeline; by Leslie Kennedy
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Jimmy Emerson, DVM’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Frist Inset Image by Gerald R. Ford White House Photographs Courtesy of US National Archives – Public Domain License
Second Inset Image by House Democrats Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License