Voting changes by US Republicans spark reaction from Justice Dept

Attorney General Merrick Garland promises to defend the ‘cornerstone of our democracy’ against challenges by Republican states.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland pledged tougher enforcement of voting rights at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, on June 11 [Tom Brenner/Pool via Reuters]

The United States Justice Department will review and challenge a series of new laws being proposed and passed by Republicans that would restrict voting rights in key US states, Attorney General Merrick Garland has announced.

“The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all other rights flow,” Garland said on Friday.

The new focus on federal enforcement of voting rights laws by Garland, the Biden administration’s top law enforcement official, comes as Republicans in Georgia, Florida, Arizona and Arkansas have passed new laws since the 2020 presidential election that critics say would make it harder for people to vote.

Similar bills have been proposed or are moving forward in more than a dozen other states including Texas, which is considering a far-reaching election bill that, among other things, would allow judges to overturn election results.

The Justice Department will double the number of lawyers it has assigned to enforce US voting rights statutes and “we are scrutinising new laws that seek to curb voter access, and where we see violations, we will not hesitate to act”, Garland said.

Justice will apply special “scrutiny to post-election audits” like one under way now in Arizona backed by the state’s Republican-controlled Senate, to ensure they abide by federal laws, Garland warned.

Trump’s false claims are GOP’s catalyst

Alleging widespread election fraud without evidence, former President Donald Trump had brought more than 40 lawsuits in key US states seeking to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.

Those lawsuits were dismissed by judges but Trump’s continued insistence that the election was “rigged” continues to drive Republicans across the country to push for more restrictive voting laws.

For instance, the pending bill in the Texas legislature would curtail so-called “souls to polls” drives by Black churches, criminalise common get-out-the-vote activities and prohibit local officials from sending out applications for mail-in ballots.

“The bill disproportionately affects people of colour,” said Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project which is among groups opposing the legislation.

Faced with criticism and intense scrutiny of the proposed legislation after it was blocked by Democrats in an extraordinary legislative session last month, Texas Republicans have begun to back away from some of the bill’s provisions.

“Even the bill’s sponsor didn’t even actually bother to read the bill,” Marziani told Al Jazeera.

Congressional Democrats try to push back

Democrats in the US Congress are seeking to enact legislation that would restore enforcement powers to the Justice Department that had been struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2013.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced this week the Senate would vote at the end of March on a sweeping package of election reforms but the bill faces Republican opposition and is unlikely to pass.

In the House, legislators are working on a narrower bill specifically aimed at restoring the Justice Department’s ability to review and approve or disapprove changes to voting rights in states with histories of discrimination.

And Democrats are suing in 14 states to protect voting rights, tweeted Marc Elias, the lead election litigator for the party.

Reinstating Trump?

Meanwhile, the fiction that the election was stolen that led Trump supporters to overrun the US Capitol on January 6 is alive and well among Trump’s Republican base.

Twenty-nine percent of the Republicans polled in a recent Politico-Morning Consult survey said they believe Trump will be reinstated as president.

The former president has told associates he will be reinstated as president after 2020 election results in Georgia, Arizona and other states are reversed, according to The New York Times.

There is no real prospect that would happen. US courts have dismissed dozens of claims by Trump that there had been widespread fraud for lack of evidence.

Election results in those states have already been certified by state authorities and in any event there is no provision in the US Constitution for such reinstatement.

Last week, Trump re-emerged in the US political spotlight with a speech to a North Carolina Republican gathering in which he repeated false claims of widespread fraud and called the 2020 election “the crime of century”.

Source: Al Jazeera