Justice Department Makes Troubling Turns on Voting Rights

Justice Department Makes Troubling Turns on Voting Rights

By:
08/30/2017

In the seven months that he has been in the White House, it seems as if President Donald Trump and his administration have produced a lifetime’s worth of political news coverage. Much of the turmoil in the administration is simply fuel for the 24-hour news cycle, with the length of the stories’ relevance counted in hours rather than days. Yet for all of the misspelled tweets and new press secretaries, the administration has quietly made a number of moves that have tangible, negative effects on the lives and rights of millions of Americans.

One such example is the ongoing assault on voting rights occurring across the country, with Republican-controlled state legislatures from Wisconsin to North Carolina to Ohio working hard to decrease African-American and other minority participation in the electoral process. While many of these tactics have been used by states before the Trump administration, especially following 2013’s landmark Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, this summer, the new administration has overseen a tremendous reversal toward legal support for policies that make it harder for these marginalized communities to vote.

Attempts to disenfranchise minorities are as old as the United States itself. African-American males were denied the right to vote until 1869, and women could not vote until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. These constitutional amendments alone were not enough to ensure access to the ballot for all, with reactionaries always seeking new ways to limit who can influence our nation’s most important institutions.  

From the poll taxes of the Jim Crow era to the ID laws of today, the statutes themselves may be different, but their intent is the same. A federal court in North Carolina recently found that the Republican state legislature enacted voter identification laws and eliminated early voting sites in 2013 that targeted African-Americans with “almost surgical precision.

While the Obama administration fought against unconstitutional voter suppression laws when in office, the Trump administration has taken an entirely different stance. In July, the Justice Department reversed its position to support a voter suppression law in Texas after the Obama administration previously argued that it intentionally discriminated against minorities. On Aug. 7, the Justice Department once again reversed previous policies, defending an Ohio law allowing the state to purge voter rolls. These are just a few examples of the systematic efforts to disenfranchise minority voters that have gained the support of the highest level of government. Unfortunately, after years of fighting these efforts, the Department of Justice now supports them.

Shortly after his inauguration, Trump alleged that three to five million non-citizens illegally voted in the 2016 election, a completely baseless claim. In response, his administration convened a “commission on election integrity” being led by some of the nation’s most notorious vote-suppressors, including Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State who has made voting in his state significantly more difficult. In late June, the commission requested that states provide voter data that included the names, ages, and party identifications. Forty-four states refused to comply.

It is clear that the intention of this commission is to rationalize the elimination of voting access to historically disadvantaged communities, not to tackle the real issues facing voters across the country. A voting commission should be convened, however it should focus on expanding ballot access, not reducing it. For this editorial board, this means automatic voter registration and making early voting easy and accessible. The United States has some of the worst election participation rates in the world, with only 56 percent of the voting age population casting a ballot in the 2016 presidential election. In a country that prides itself on democracy, this is unacceptable.

In the past few months, the Trump administration has moved beyond tacit approval of these laws to a full-on endorsement by the highest levels of government. The Justice Department, once the country’s strongest advocate for civil rights, is now fighting hard to ensure that the federal government is on the wrong side of history.

We urge Americans to focus on these issues of voter suppression with the energy and attention they deserve. While stories about amicus briefs and Supreme Court proceedings lack the flash of some of the summer’s other headlines, they are essential to ensuring that all Americans have access to the ballot, something that American citizens, unlike the current Justice Department, must not forget.

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