Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the Justice Department will aggressively fight efforts to restrict voting rights nationwide following a blitz of new voting restrictions in Republican-led states that stem from former President Donald Trump’s lies that widespread fraud helped Joe Biden win the presidential election.
In a speech Friday, Garland outlined a number of steps the Justice Department will take to protect every citizen’s right to vote, and within the next 30 days said the department will double the number of employees in the Civil Rights Division’s “enforcement staff for protecting the right to vote.”
“There are many things that are open to debate in America. But the right of all eligible citizens to vote is not one of them. The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all other rights ultimately flow,” Garland said to a room of prosecutors inside the Justice Department’s Great Hall.
The Justice Department, he said, will examine new restrictive voting laws across the country and take action against any “violations.”
As Arizona’s problem-ridden audit has inspired Republicans elsewhere to push for reviews in their own states, Garland said DOJ will analyze post-election audits, “to ensure they abide by federal statutory requirements to protect election records and avoid the intimidation of voters.”
Garland said that since 2013 when the Supreme Court decided that portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were no longer valid, “there has been a dramatic rise in legislative efforts that will make it harder for millions of citizens to cast a ballot that counts.”
This year alone, 14 states have passed controversial voting right laws “and some jurisdictions, based on disinformation, have utilized abnormal post-election audit methodologies that may put the integrity of the voting process at risk and undermine public confidence in our democracy,” Garland said.
By increasing the Civil Rights Division’s staff, Garland said “we will use all existing provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act, the Help America Vote Act, and the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act to ensure that we protect every qualified American seeking to participate in our democracy.”
Garland emphasized a commitment to protecting Black voters and other voters of color, and said the department will “scrutinize current laws and practices” to discern whether Black voters and other voters of color have been discriminated against, including when it comes to the amount of time Black voters and other voters of color wait in polling lines compared to white voters.
The department will put out “guidance with respect to early voting and voting by mail,” Garland said, and, “the voting protections that apply to all jurisdictions as they redraw their legislative maps,” as states begin the redistricting process ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, Garland said.
While he said the Justice Department is not waiting on legislation, Garland reaffirmed the Biden administration’s vision for the passage of S1, called the For the People Act, as well as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
According to Garland, the “For the People Act,” the Democratic-backed voting rights bill “would provide the Department with the tools it needs,” to preserve voting rights.
Although Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he plans to the bring the bill to the floor the week of June 21, the legislation is expected to fall short of the 60 votes needed to pass as it currently has no Republican support.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson said the new tone set by the Biden administration is encouraging, but “it is a race against time, and against those working to suppress our votes.”
It is unclear when the Justice Department will bring litigation based on its new efforts.
Election law expert Rick Hasen of the University of California-Irvine tweeted that there wasn’t “a lot of concrete action” in Garland’s speech. “But let’s see what DOJ actually files in the coming months—that’s the real test.”
This story has been updated with additional details.