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Justice Dept. Official Asks Congress to Intervene in State Voting Restrictions

August 16, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
The Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — A high-ranking Justice Department attorney urged Congress Monday to clamp down on new state laws that she claims shut out some low-income persons from participating in elections.

She described voting rights as more at risk now than any time in decades.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke testified to Congress as Democratic lawmakers debate legislation that would limit the rights of states to restrict who can vote.

“The progress we have made is fragile,” Clarke, who heads the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties.

She was referring to election reforms since the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting. Congress has amended it five times since it was enacted and now is considering modifying the law again.

The greatest current controversy comes from Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination receive federal approval, known as “preclearance,” before changing their election laws.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Shelby County v. Holder that “preclearance” was an unconstitutional infringement into state rights to determine how elections are run. The Court said preclearance is “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day,” which makes it unresponsive to current needs.

Last year, former President Donald Trump alleged voter fraud during the presidential election, which contributed to fueling reform measures among numerous state legislatures.

The primary federal legislative proposal discussed during the congressional hearing is the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, H.R. 4. It would restore the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement for states with a history of civil rights violations.

By mid-July of this year, 18 states enacted laws that the left-leaning public policy foundation, Brennan Center for Justice, says create barriers to voting.

“I am here today to sound an alarm,” Clarke said.

Although the states consider their voting reform laws safeguards against fraud, Clarke said they “make it more difficult for minority citizens to vote.”

Most of the laws, such as in Florida, Georgia and Texas, come from deep South states that were primary targets of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Clarke said reprisal against southern states was unrelated to why she believes Congress needs to set minimum standards for state and local elections.

“We’re not coming after any jurisdiction,” Clarke said. “The sole goal is to make sure that all eligible Americans have access to the ballot.”

Much of the concern about the new states laws results from their restrictions on mail-in voting, absentee voting and photo identification requirements.

Some disadvantaged persons are unable to leave their low-wage jobs to vote during the hours the polls are open. Others lack the drivers licenses most commonly used for photo identification.

Democrats on the subcommittee said the state laws might not mention race or income in their restrictions but they still discourage disadvantaged persons from voting.

“One of the most fundamental rights of our democracy remains under threat for too many Americans,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y.

The Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder “decision effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act,” Nadler said.

Republicans accused Democrats of exaggerating.

“The facts just don’t support their arguments,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

A greater danger is a federal power grab that tramples the states’ constitutional rights to set the rules on elections. Restoring the preclearance requirement in the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would create an “ unconstitutional federal overreach,” Jordan said.

He predicted that nearly every county and city would have to get approval from the Justice Department on how they hold their elections.

“That’s some scary stuff,” Jordan said.

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