Justice Department must be aggressive to defend voting rights
The DOJ must use its authority to challenge discriminatory reforms immediately, before the election. The new obstacles must be exposed as the insult that they are, and used to motivate even more people to vote.
The right to vote is under attack in states across the country. A Republican filibuster has blocked legislation that would protect that right. President Biden can still act right now to help defend that right, by ramping up the Justice Department’s efforts to challenge those measures designed to suppress the vote.
The right to vote is the essence of a democracy. Yet, every expansion of the right to vote in this country has required struggle. And every step forward has always been contested by reaction.
In-depth political coverage, sports analysis, entertainment reviews and cultural commentary.
Today, we witness the second great disenfranchisement effort in American history. The first came after victory in the Civil War freed the slaves and extended the right to vote to African Americans. That sparked the reaction across the South that included suppressing the right to vote for more than 100 years.
Now after the civil rights movement once more expanded the right to vote, another wave of reaction has begun. In states across the country, Republican officials — acting from cynicism, opportunism and cravenness — have passed measures to make it harder to vote, particularly for those in urban areas, and have pushed partisan redistricting schemes often aimed at discriminating against minorities.
The fight against restrictive voting laws and partisan gerrymandering is, as President Biden said, “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.” The question is what can be done about it.
Biden belatedly came out strongly for two measures that passed the House to protect the right to vote: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — to revive the Voting Rights Act that was weakened by the conservative Supreme Court — and the For the People Act, which would provide minimum standards for federal elections, curb the role of secret money in elections, and limit partisan gerrymandering. A Republican filibuster in the Senate blocked passage of these laws, with Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema joining the Republicans.
Now it is up to the Biden administration, and specifically the Justice Department, to step up and use the full range of their powers to roll back the efforts to suppress the vote.
Use the DOJ’s authority
The DOJ has taken the first steps. It has issued guidance documents that lay out its authority to act under the Constitution and the Voting Rights Ac, putting states on notice.
In June, Attorney General Merrick Garland launched a task force to investigate and prosecute criminal threats to election officials. The DOJ filed its first major voting rights lawsuit against Georgia for its passage of a massive voter suppression bill. In December, the DOJ sued Texas for its discriminatory redistricting plans. These were merely the first of what must be a series of lawsuits and challenges to new disenfranchisement efforts.
The DOJ is limited because five right-wing Supreme Court justices gutted the pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act which gave the DOJ the right to clear election law changes and challenge those that were discriminatory before they went into effect. The DOJ still can sue on discriminatory effect, but that would come after the election. The DOJ must use its authority to challenge discriminatory reforms immediately, before the election, showing discriminatory intent and obvious effect if they are allowed to stand.
Biden can act to rebuild the capacity of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, and to make clear that he wants the department to use the full scope of its powers. He needs to light a fire under a DOJ that has yet to meet the challenges we face. He can also push once more to overcome the Republican filibuster, and to make clear who is standing in the way.
In the end, voting rights will be defended only by those who are the targets of efforts to suppress the vote. The new obstacles must be exposed as the insult that they are, and used to motivate even more people to vote.
These systematic efforts to suppress the vote, to rig the rules so a minority can capture a majority of legislative seats, are testament to how important voting is in a democracy. The forces of reaction are mobilized and relentless. Now those on the side of democracy — the White House, the Justice Department, the citizens whose right to vote is being challenged — must demonstrate that they are even more mobilized and even more relentless.
Follow Jesse Jackson on Twitter @RevJJackson
Send letters to firstname.lastname@example.org