Garland Pledges Renewed Efforts to Defend Voting Rights


Republican-led parliaments in several states, including Georgia, Florida, and Iowa, have passed laws that impose new voting restrictions, and Texas, New Hampshire, Arizona and Michigan, among others, are considering changes to their electoral systems.

At the same time, hopes on the left have dampened that Congress will pass two major electoral laws after Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, said he would not support the abolition of the filibuster to further such measures.

Mr. Garland has said protecting the right to vote is one of his top priorities as the attorney general, and his top lieutenants include high profile proxy attorneys like Vanita Gupta, the No. 3 ministry, and Kristen Clarke, the civil rights director. The department currently employs about a dozen prison staff who focus on protecting the right to vote, according to a department official familiar with the staff.

Despite his promise, Mr. Garland is still limited in what he can do unless the Democrats in Congress somehow manage to pass new voter protection laws. He can sue states that violate any of the four major federal voting laws in the country. He can notify state and local governments if he believes their practices are in violation of federal law. And federal prosecutors can charge those found to have intimidated voters a federal crime.

The Justice Department’s most powerful tool, the Suffrage Act, was severely weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that repealed portions of the law that forced states with a heritage of racial discrimination to obtain Justice Department approval before theirs Electoral laws could change.

Now the ministry can only sue after a law has been passed and found to be in violation of the law, meaning a restrictive law could survive multiple election cycles while a lawsuit snakes its way through the courts.

New steps to protect voting rights are unlikely to come quickly, said Joanna Lydgate, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general who co-founded the United States’ United Democracy Center. “People have to be patient,” she said.