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U.S. attorney general vows to aggressively defend voting rights

·3 min read
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland delivers remarks on voting rights at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington

By Andy Sullivan and Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Friday his Justice Department will aggressively enforce voting rights at a time when many Republican-led states are tightening election laws and supporters of former President Donald Trump continue to baselessly question his 2020 defeat.

Garland said the Justice Department will prosecute threats against election officials, double the number of prosecutors devoted to voting rights and closely examine how states conduct their elections.

He said the Justice Department will scrutinize areas where Black voters have to wait in line longer than white voters to cast their ballots, a lingering problem in presidential election battleground states such as Georgia.

"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 in a speech at the Justice Department.

Garland's announcement marks a shift in policy for the Justice Department, which under Trump dropped several ambitious voting rights lawsuits and brought only one case under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark civil rights law.

That law required states with a history of discrimination to get permission from the Justice Department before changing the way they ran elections, until the Supreme Court struck down the provision in 2013. That led to a surge of changes in southern, Republican-led states that voting rights advocates say have disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic voters.

Garland urged Congress to restore that power to the Justice Department, which he said was used to block more than 1,000 proposed local election changes between 1965 and 2006. Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, support the idea but have not yet introduced legislation on it this year.

The attorney general also urged Congress to pass a separate voting rights bill that has bogged down in the Senate, where Democrats lack the votes to advance it.

Following Trump's 2020 defeat, Republicans have passed a wave of new voting requirements and limits this year in battleground states such as Georgia, Florida and Arizona. Texas is expected to pass similar restrictions in coming months, over Democratic lawmakers' objections.

Trump falsely claimed that the election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud.

A total of 14 U.S. states have enacted new laws that make it more difficult for Americans to vote, according to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Garland did not make clear whether he would challenge any of those new laws in court. He said a Republican-led audit of the 2020 election in Arizona might amount to voter intimidation, but did not say whether the Justice Department would intervene.

Voting rights advocates praised Garland's announcement as a welcome reversal of course from the Trump administration even though it was short on promises of concrete action.

"Let's see what the DOJ (Department of Justice) actually files in the coming months - that's the real test," University of California, Irvine law professor Rick Hasen wrote on Twitter.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan and Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Jason Lange and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Will Dunham and Alistair Bell)

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