Attorney General Merrick Garland laid out on Friday a muscular approach he says the Justice Department will take to protect the right to vote. In a policy speech at the department’s D.C. headquarters, Garland addressed not only the slew of restrictive voting measures advancing in GOP statehouses, but the harassment of election officials and the recent phenomena of dubious post-election “audits” that cast doubt on the 2020 results.
“We have not been blind to the dramatic increase in menacing and violent threats against all manner of state and local election workers, ranging from the highest administrators to volunteer poll workers,” Garland said. “Such threats undermine our electoral process, and violate a myriad of federal laws.”
As for the drive for more post-election audits, which Garland described as fueled by “disinformation,” their “abnormal” methodologies “may put the integrity of the voting process at risk and undermine public confidence in our democracy.”
For years, Republicans have sought to undermine federal voting rights laws, while GOP state legislators over the last decade have ramped up their push to limit ballot access. On Friday, Garland framed the renewed DOJ focus on safeguarding democracy within the department’s long history of making voting rights a key priority.
“Progress to protect voting rights, and especially for Black Americans and other people of color, has never been steady,” Garland said.”Moments of voting rights expansion have often been met with counter efforts to curb the franchise.”
But his references to the audits, as well as to intimidation election officials have faced amid President Trump’s 2020 voter fraud fear-mongering, touched on the new territory U.S. democracy finds itself, even though the parallel push to clamp down on ballot access has been years in the making.
“To meet the challenge of the current moment, we must rededicate the resources of the Department of Justice to a critical part of its original mission: enforcing federal law to protect the franchise for all voters,” Garland said.
Garland vowed that within the next 30 days, the department would double the enforcement staff in the Civil Rights division. He said that the department will be “scrutinizing” the new laws and existing practices that may infringe on the right to vote.
“Where we see violations, we will not hesitate to act,” he said.
He also previewed plans to publish DOJ guidance on early voting, mail voting, post-election audits and redistricting, as the upcoming redistricting cycle will be the first one without the Voting Rights Act requirement that certain states have their maps vetted by the federal government.
Democrats in Congress are expected in coming months to roll out new legislation to restore the so-called “preclearance” requirement in the VRA, which was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. A separate voting rights bill that would set national standards for ballot access is currently in paralysis in the Senate, where it lacks the votes to overcome a GOP filibuster.
Garland touched on both pieces of legislation, and promised to provide Congress with all “necessary support” as it considers voting measures.
“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,” Garland said.