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Editorial: Good for Garland: The attorney general goes to court to defend voting rights

Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland stands outside.
Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland announced that the Justice Department is suing Georgia over its new election law.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland announced Friday that the Justice Department is suing Georgia over the state’s new “Election Integrity Act.” The lawsuit makes a powerful case that the measure, one of several enacted by Republican-controlled state legislatures around the country, violates Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The attorney general’s activism is especially welcome given the stonewalling of voting-rights legislation by congressional Republicans.

The complaint filed in federal court in Atlanta challenges several provisions of Georgia’s law, including identification requirements for obtaining an absentee ballot, limitations on ballot drop boxes and the now notorious ban on efforts by churches and civic groups to provide food and water to people waiting in line to vote.

Assistant Atty. Gen. for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke maintained that the Georgia law was “adopted with a racially motivated purpose.” That’s a dramatic accusation, but the department’s complaint amply supports it. It recites the history of discrimination against Black voters in Georgia and notes that the Legislature acted with knowledge of the disproportionate effect the law’s provisions would have on “Black voters’ ability to participate in the political process on an equal basis with white voters.”

Section 2, which applies nationwide, traditionally has been used to challenge district lines that dilute the political influence of minority voters. But that provision has acquired new importance in protecting the right to vote since 2013. That was the year the Supreme Court essentially gutted another provision, Section 5, that requires jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to “pre-clear” changes in their election rules with the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C. (Before that decision, Georgia was subject to pre-clearance.)

It’s unclear how effective lawsuits filed under Section 2 will be in countering restrictive election laws and regulations. The Supreme Court will rule soon on the use of Section 2 to challenge two features of elections in Arizona: a requirement that officials discard provisional ballots cast by voters who showed up at the wrong precinct, and a limitation on the collection of mail ballots by third parties (also known as ballot harvesting).

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On the other hand, requiring states with a history of discrimination to pre-clear changes in their election laws proved a potent protection for voting rights before 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down as outdated the formula used to determine which jurisdictions were subject to pre-clearance.

The pre-clearance system would be reinvigorated if Congress passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, one of two election-related proposals being pressed by congressional Democrats. The other is the For the People Act, which would among other provisions require states to offer 15 days of early voting and allow wide use of voting by mail. The For the People Act passed the House in March, but has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate where debate was blocked Tuesday by a filibuster.

Garland’s commitment to aggressively protect voting rights is in the best traditions of the Justice Department. He has promised to double the number of employees in the department’s Civil Rights Division charged with enforcing protections for the right to vote. But the department’s lawyers would find it far easier to protect voting rights if Congress fulfilled its part of the bargain.


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