America Deserves a Justice Department That Will Defend the Right to Vote

There are reports the Trump administration is planning dramatic cuts to the budget, including DOJ's Civil Rights Division. That raises troubling questions about the incoming administration’s commitment to protecting citizens’ ballot access.

January 19, 2017

Cross-posted on Huffington Post

This morning, The Hill reported that the Trump administration is planning dramatic cuts to the federal budget, including the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Combined with the pending nomination of Jeff Sessions to be our next attorney general, these potential cuts raise troubling questions about the incoming administration’s commitment to civil rights enforcement and, in particular, protecting citizens’ ballot access. The nation deserves a Department of Justice that will defend the right to vote, which requires a fully operational Civil Rights Division that prioritizes its mission over crass political objectives.

The Civil Rights Division plays a critical role in enforcing a wide range of protections, like those for fair housing, for Americans with disabilities, and against law enforcement abuses. Its work defending voting rights has been especially important, both historically and in recent years. Importantly, the Division has been effective. The DOJ is currently involved in litigation against restrictive voting laws and practices in several states, including Texas and North Carolina.

Last summer, the full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the country’s most conservative appellate courts, found Texas’s strict photo ID requirement to have a discriminatory result, keeping black and Latino voters from the polls. It determined the law was in violation of the Voting Rights Act. As a result, the state had to modify its requirement to be more accessible for the 2016 election. (Next week, a hearing is scheduled on whether Texas intended to discriminate against minority voters when passing the law, which would be another violation of the Voting Rights Act; the Justice Department is expected to take part.)

At around the same time, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found a North Carolina law — which included a strict photo ID requirement, reductions to early voting, and the elimination of same-day registration and pre-registration — intentionally discriminated against African Americans in the state, again in violation of the Voting Rights Act. That law was not in effect for the election.

But it’s these results that have made the Civil Rights Division a target for cuts, and which raise concerns about what its priorities will be in the Trump administration. According to The Hill, the Trump budget plan is based largely on a Heritage Foundation proposal. That plan recommends reducing the Division’s budget by $58 million, or 33 percent total, and very clearly explains why. According to the document, “[i]t is a division that has fought election integrity and filed abusive lawsuits intended to enforce progressive social ideology in areas ranging from public hiring to public education” (See page 26).

But what the Heritage Foundation and the Trump administration are calling “abusive lawsuits” and “progressive social ideology,” others, including our country’s judges, are calling protections for the fundamental right to vote. That value should be shared by everyone, regardless of ideology.

If the new administration follows through on this proposal, it may move the Division’s priorities away from civil rights enforcement and toward what Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), described in his confirmation hearing as “regularly ... occur[ing]” voter fraud. This would be a repeat of the Bush-era Justice Department, which pursued a partisan agenda on voting under the guise of rooting out suspected fraud. At the time, that agenda led the administration to fire well-respected US attorneys who refused to prosecute voter fraud where it did not exist, and subsequent investigations into that activity led to a wave of resignations that included Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. An Inspector General’s report concluded that the controversy “severely damaged [DOJ’s] credibility”, and in court, its theories, such as the idea that federal law required aggressive purges of the voter rolls, ultimately did not persuade judges. This single-minded pursuit of fraud has already been tried and has already failed.

Today’s news indicates that DOJ may again be headed in that misguided direction: away from robust civil rights enforcement and toward a partisan agenda. The nation needs a Justice Department with integrity that will act on the mandates of law, not on the immediate needs of politicians. The Civil Rights Division is central to this mission, and must remain both fully funded and able to do its vital work.