[Image courtesy of telegraph]
Recent news stories might suggest that the federal government’s authority over election policy is in retreat, but the latest budget request from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) suggests otherwise. USA Today has more:
The Justice Department, no longer responsible for vetting election procedures in states with a history of racial discrimination, instead plans to proactively search the entire country for voting rights violations.
Its new focus is the result of a June 2013 Supreme Court decision dismantling a Voting Rights Act provision that had required all or part of 15 states to get “pre-clearance” from Justice officials or a federal court before making any changes to their election procedures.
Now, the department says, it will be more proactive in protecting minority voters.
“The voting section’s work will shift to greater affirmative efforts to detect and investigate voting practices that violate federal law, to more affirmative litigation to enjoin such practices, and to additional monitoring of elections throughout the country each year,” according to the agency’s fiscal 2015 budget documents sent to Congress last week.
In particular, the DOJ is planning to staff up to in order to gather and analyze the data that had previously been submitted to the agency under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act:
Instead of cutting back on the number of attorneys handling voting rights cases, the department is expanding its reach under other sections of the Voting Rights Act that allow it to sue jurisdictions for unfair voting practices or return the worst offenders to a more strict level of oversight …
Attorney General Eric Holder has long argued that the [Shelby County] Supreme Court decision … wouldn’t keep his civil rights lawyers from doing their job.
“We will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action using every legal tool that remains to us against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free (right to vote),” Holder said the day of the ruling
In its 5-4 ruling, the court said the formula Congress had used to determine which states and cities were subject to “pre-clearance” was unconstitutional.
The decision immediately ended the Justice Department’s job of reviewing redistricting plans, proposals to move polling places and myriad other voting-related changes in those states and cities. The agency reviewed 9,600 such proposals in fiscal years 2012 and 2013.
“Now the burden is on the federal government or private plaintiffs to prove a problem with discrimination,” said Rick Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California-Irvine School of Law. “These cases are fact-intensive and expensive to bring.”
An increased emphasis on filing lawsuits to enforce the Voting Rights Act is already apparent. The Justice Department has opened a number of new investigations as part of its plan “to identify election systems that may dilute minority voting strength … as well as investigation of voting practices that may deny or abridge the right to vote,” the budget document states.
Of course, the simple fact that DOJ has requested the budget to do this work doesn’t mean they’ll get it – with a divided Congress and continued uncertainty about the proper role of the Voting Rights Act, one would expect that the increase will encounter resistance on Capitol Hill.
Still, the budget filing – in combination with cases now pending in North Carolina and Texas – is a clear indication that when it comes to voting rights enforcement, DOJ doesn’t intend to go away … quietly or otherwise.