Attorney General Jeff Sessions would like everyone to know that the Department of Justice will totally enforce federal voting rights laws on Election Day. The catch is, he’ll only be sending Civil Rights Division personnel to 35 jurisdictions across 19 states. Few counties previously subject to pre-clearance requirements under the Voting Rights Act—a status conferred as a result of a history of voter suppression—will be covered. Sessions’s real focus is on “voter fraud.”
Until 2013, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia had to run voting changes by DOJ. But this year only four jurisdictions each will be monitored in Alaska and Arizona. It’s three in Texas and just two in Georgia. Virginia’s getting help in just one jurisdiction. Not a single jurisdiction in either Carolina made the cut, nor any in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana.
DOJ is sending civil rights staff to California and Florida, some counties of which were covered under the VRA, but not to the counties with a history of voter suppression. Similarly, though a South Dakota county made the list, it’s not one of the two counties in that state that previously had to get pre-clearance.
Sessions’ Election Day plan is just the latest signal that the Justice Department is focused on persecuting voters, not protecting them. They’re taking the cue from the White House: Trump’s actively practicing voter intimidation.
On Oct. 30, DOJ announced that it would be working with U.S. Attorneys’ offices and the FBI to combat “election fraud.” Per its release, that includes “vote buying, multiple voting, submission of fraudulent ballots or registrations, alteration of votes, and malfeasance by election officials.”
Not even the Heritage Foundation’s “Election Fraud” database spanning 20-odd years, created to gin up concern about voter fraud, suggests that voter fraud is a significant problem. The Brennan Center has put the work in to debunk it altogether. One fun fact: A person’s more likely to be struck by lightning than to try to impersonate someone else at the polls.
Voter fraud investigations and prosecutions have long been used as a way to intimidate, deter, or neutralize community leaders. Among others known for such tactics: Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who’s currently abusing that role to promote voter suppression in hopes of gaining an advantage in the race against Democrat Stacey Abrams for governor.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has responded to Sessions’ announcements by pointing out his emphasis on ostensible fraud.
“In stark contrast to how federal personnel have been deployed in the past, Attorney General Jeff Sessions does not have his eyes set on voter suppression and last minute intimidation but is instead using this moment to further promote a false narrative about voter fraud," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "At every turn, this Justice Department has failed to take action to enforce the Voting Rights Act and protect the interests of minority voters.”
Meanwhile, epic voter suppression efforts are unfolding in plain sight.
There’s just one polling place for the 13,000 registered voters living in Dodge City, Kansas, and it’s a mile from the nearest bus stop. Why? Residents are primarily Latinx. A local official moved the polling place just recently, then refused to open a second, citing “double voting” concerns. By contrast, there are three polling places for the county’s other 1,300 registered voters.
Then there’s Georgia, where Kemp’s finding every excuse to block voter registration and voting. He’s also behind Georgia’s voter purge. Not that Georgia’s the only state that’s purged voters. Voter purges are actually on the rise—sequelae of the 2013 decision striking major portions of the Voting Rights Act, which paved the way for discriminatory changes to voting law as well as emboldening the architects of voter suppression.
Not to be left behind, the Republicans of Shelby County, Tennessee, are also blocking registrations based on application-related minutiae.
Conservatives’ passion for voter ID laws—which dovetails with Trump and Sessions’ false “voter fraud” narrative—is only growing. For example, North Dakota is openly disenfranchising Native Americans by imposing address requirements that block people who live on reservations and in rural areas from voting.
On Election Day, it’s not DOJ but rather civil rights organizations that voters should turn to. FYI: The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights’ Election Protection project, the nation's largest and longest-running, nonpartisan voter protection program, can be reached at 866-OUR-VOTE.