Justice Department urges Congress to restore Voting Rights Act as ‘matter of great urgency’

Kristen Clarke warns voter suppression threat could send US ‘backsliding’ into discrimination

Alex Woodward
New York
Monday 16 August 2021 20:34
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Justice Department warns voting rights 'backsliding' without congressional action
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US Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke submitted a 20-page statement and delivered remarks to a congressional committee urging lawmakers to restore the Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights law weakened by the US Supreme Court and undermined by a wave of Republican-backed legislation to restrict ballot access.

Ms Clarke, recently appointed to lead the civil rights division at the US Department of Justice, warned a House Judiciary subcommittee on 16 August that “the progress that we have made is fragile as we watch the current resurgence and attacks on voting rights” while congressional Republicans reject a pair of bills to expand voting access and revive elements of the 1965 law that were gutted by the nation’s high court.

The 2013 decision in Shelby v Holder rejected a long-held formula to determine whether a state or local government with a history of discriminatory elections laws required federal permission – or “preclearance” – before changes to its elections laws could take effect.

In July, the court upheld a pair of restrictive Arizona voting laws that also weaken the Voting Rights Act’s reach.

“Congress has broad enforcement powers and must act now to restore the Voting Rights Act to prevent us from backsliding into a nation where millions of citizens, particularly citizens of colour, find it difficult to register, cast their ballot and elect candidates of choice,” Ms Clarke told the committee.

In 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote against preclearance provisions for the court’s 5-4 opinion, writing that “things have changed dramatically” following the Voting Rights Act’s passage, suggesting that discriminatory laws were a thing of the past.

After passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the Justice Department rejected more than 3,000 proposed changes to voting laws to prevent discriminatory outcomes, Ms Clarke said.

The high court’s ruling in 2013 gave “a green light to jurisdictions to adopt voting restrictions,” she said.

States closed hundreds of polling places, disproportionately targeting areas with voters of colour, and GOP lawmakers have filed scores of restrictive voting laws, culminating in a massive, right-wing lobby-backed campaign to flood state legislatures in 2021 with bills fuelled by Donald Trump’s baseless “stolen election” narrative.

Nearly 400 pieces of copycat legislation were filed by Republican lawmakers in nearly every state within the first few months of 2021. A parallel effort from GOP state lawmakers has seen more than 200 bills in 41 states that give themselves more authority over the electoral process, with the potential to overturn the results. At least 24 of those bills have been signed into law.

The proposed John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore elements of the 1965 law struck out by the Supreme Court, which in 2013 also suggested that Congress should update the formula used to determine discriminatory impacts.

Its passage is “a matter of great urgency,” Ms Clarke said.

But the measure is nearly universally opposed by congressional Republicans, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calling it “unnecessary” after steering a GOP blockade against the For The People Act, Democrats’ sweeping voting rights legislation aimed at combatting the tide of suppressive laws across the US.

Ms Clarke said the US is “on the cusp of potentially another transformational moment” as state legislatures race towards a redistricting process that could reshape voting boundaries for at least the next 10 years, ahead of critical 2022 midterm elections that could determine the balance of power in Congress.

“Without preclearance, the Justice Department will not have access to maps and other redistricting information for many jurisdictions where there is reason for concern, even though this kind of information is necessary to assess where voting rights are being restricted, and to help inform how the department directs its limited enforcement resources,” she told lawmakers on Monday.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer plans to introduce a “compromise” version of the For The People Act in September.

“We have made a great deal of progress on that legislation,” he said last week. “We intend to rally around it.”

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