Americans eager to protect our elections from foreign interference – and shouldn’t that be everyone? – were relieved when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian-backed hacking into political party and state election computer systems last year. There was absolutely no way that someone as close to President Trump and the Trump campaign could be trusted to oversee an impartial, thorough investigation.
But Tuesday brought a reminder that Sessions remains well positioned to do plenty of other damage to our democracy and that the Justice Department under his direction is busy at the task.
Reversing the department’s policy during the Obama administration, DOJ lawyers filed a brief on Tuesday urging the Supreme Court to uphold Ohio’s plan to purge thousands of people from voter rolls. An appeals court had blocked the state’s effort.
Ohio’s policy requires election officials to mail a notice to any voter who misses two consecutive elections; if the voter does not respond and fails to vote in the next two federal elections, his or her name is automatically removed from the rolls.
“The DOJ has a long and proud history of protecting voting rights, but clearly under Jeff Sessions the department has reversed course,” said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio. “The brunt of these voter roll purges will fall on Ohio’s lowest income residents and will raise still more hurdles between them and the ballot box. Neither the state nor the federal government should be in the business of taking away the rights of Americans to vote without justification, but that is unfortunately where we find ourselves.”
Common Cause is among several advocacy groups that have challenged voter purging policies in states across the country, arguing that they violate the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). A lawsuit filed against Georgia’s secretary of state last year by Common Cause and the Georgia NAACP is pending in a federal court in Atlanta; in addition to charging the state with violating the NVRA, the suit asks the court to declare Georgia’s policy a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech.
In the Ohio case now before the Supreme Court, the Justice Department acknowledges that its position on purges has changed thanks to President Trump’s election. The reversal fits a pattern of other department moves to make voting more difficult since Trump tapped Sessions to serve as attorney general.
In Texas, DOJ lawyers have dropped the department’s longstanding opposition to the state’s tough voter identification law, which federal lawyers had argued is written to discriminate against young and minority voters. The Texas law, passed by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed by a Republican governor, lists a variety of approved voter IDs - including driver’s licenses and concealed weapons permits - but omits IDs, like those issued by state colleges, that are more likely to be held by Democratic voters.
The Trump administration also has created a study commission, led by Vice President Mike Pence, that gives every indication of being rigged to back the president’s baseless claim that up to five million people voted illegally last year. The “election integrity” commission’s first move was to ask states to turn over a huge trove of personal information about registered voters, including their voting history, party affiliation, and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.
While many states are providing some of the requested data, few have agreed to supply all of it. Common Cause and other groups have filed an assortment of lawsuits against the commission, seeking to stop the data mining; courts so far have failed to intervene, however.
Issues: Voting and Elections