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Press Release

Brennan Center Sues Justice Department for Refusing to Disclose Documents Related to Controversial Voting Letter

More details about DOJ’s efforts to investigate state election practices could shed light on Department’s plans around voter purges.

August 7, 2018

New York, N.Y. – The Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is suing the Justice Depart­ment today for refus­ing to turn over docu­ments related to a contro­ver­sial letter DOJ sent last year, which sought detailed inform­a­tion about how states main­tain their voter rolls. Voting rights groups are concerned that it could be a prelude to pres­sur­ing states to engage in aggress­ive voter purges — the often-flawed process of delet­ing names from voter regis­tra­tion lists.

“The public has a right to know why the Justice Depart­ment sent this letter, and what inform­a­tion it received from states in response,” said Jonathan Brater, coun­sel in the Bren­nan Center’s Demo­cracy Program. “The Justice Depart­ment should be fight­ing to protect the voting rights of all Amer­ic­ans. We are concerned, though, that this letter may be part of a broader effort to under­mine those rights, and we are going to court to find out.”

Non-partisan ethics watch­dog Amer­ican Over­sight is repres­ent­ing the Bren­nan Center in the lawsuit.

DOJ sent the letter in July 2017, request­ing that elec­tion offi­cials in 44 states share details about how they are comply­ing with federal laws that govern voter list main­ten­ance. In it, DOJ claimed the inquiry was related to “nation­wide enforce­ment efforts.” The Bren­nan Center filed a Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act request shortly after­ward, request­ing commu­nic­a­tion and docu­ments related to both the creation of the letter and any responses DOJ received from states. Earlier this year, the DOJ largely denied the request, produ­cing some partially-redac­ted pages while at the same time acknow­ledging that addi­tional respons­ive docu­ments exist.

“On its own, this letter would be troub­ling, but taken in the context of Pres­id­ent Trump’s discred­ited 'voter fraud’ commis­sion and the move to include a citizen­ship ques­tion in the census, it looks like one piece of a broader attack on voting rights,” said Austin Evers, exec­ut­ive director of Amer­ican Over­sight. “With just months until Amer­ic­ans head to the polls again for the Novem­ber midterms, we need to get to the bottom of how this letter was writ­ten and why it was sent.”

DOJ’s inad­equate response comes as a new Bren­nan Center report finds that voter purges are on the rise. Between the federal elec­tions of 2014 and 2016, almost 4 million more names were purged from the rolls than between 2006 and 2008.

The uptick is partic­u­larly notice­able in juris­dic­tions that previ­ously had to “pre-clear” changes to their elec­tion proced­ures with federal offi­cials because of a history of racial discrim­in­a­tion. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder ended that federal over­sight. Had purge rates contin­ued in these juris­dic­tions at the same pace as rates in juris­dic­tions not subject to preclear­ance at that time, 2 million fewer voters would have been deleted from voter rolls between the elec­tions of 2012 and 2016.

For more inform­a­tion or to connect with a Bren­nan Center expert, contact Rebecca Autrey at rebecca.autrey@nyu.edu or 646–292–8316.

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