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Merrick Garland promises to defend voting rights the hard way

The DOJ will double its voting enforcement staffers — but how many even is that?

For four years, the Trump administration basically forgot the Justice Department was supposed to care about protecting voting rights. Attorney General Merrick Garland promised on Friday to reverse that trend, giving the DOJ’s atrophied voting section the resources it needs — but I’m not sure it’s going to be enough to stem the tide of Republican-engineered voter suppression building in the states.

Garland is well aware of the difficulties the DOJ faces in what he described in a speech to staff as one of the original core functions of the department. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were unconstitutional. Under those sections’ “preclearance” provision, the Justice Department could review changes in certain state and counties’ voting laws before they took effect. In doing so, the court took away the most powerful tool the Department of Justice had to prevent discriminatory voting laws from blocking people’s right to vote before they took effect.

Before that law passed, Garland told his audience, the only way the Justice Department could guarantee the right of Black Americans to vote was to “bring individual actions in each county and parish.” And in 1961, that’s exactly what Attorney General Robert Kennedy told his top civil rights lawyers he wanted to do.

"'Well, general, if you want that, we’ve gotta have a lot more lawyers,'" Garland said was the response to Kennedy’s orders. "Well, today we are again without a preclearance provision. So again, the Civil Rights Division is going to need more lawyers. Accordingly, today I am announcing that within the next 30 days, we will double the divisions’ enforcement staff for protecting the right to vote.”

That sounds impressive. But is it enough for the challenge ahead? As Garland noted, there are 14 states that have made it harder for residents to vote this year. Those states alone have over 900 counties among them. And more than a dozen other states are gearing up to pass their own restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice’s tally.

From the time the Voting Rights Act was signed into law and 2006, the DOJ objected to more than 1,000 attempted changes to voting laws that would’ve hindered the right to vote, Garland said. Without preclearance, though, the individual lawsuits required to block similar changes could take years to wind their way through the courts.

Garland said the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division will also be looking at laws passed since 2013 to see which, if any, require a court challenge. And on top of all that, this year starts the first redistricting cycle without the Justice Department's ability to make calls on the new electoral districts the states draw up.

That’s, quite frankly, a lot of tasks for a department that filed almost no cases alleging violations of voters’ rights during the previous administration. Garland told members of Congress last month that he’d requested a 15.8 percent bump in funding for the Civil Rights Division to help prosecute the number of cases necessary. That funding won’t come through until the next fiscal year, though, in October this year.

It’s great that Garland promised to double the enforcement staffers in the division’s voting section — but the exact number that entails is a bit of a mystery at the moment. I asked the Department of Justice how many staffers are currently working on enforcement of voting rights and as of Friday evening had received no response. (The New York Times likewise reported, “It was not clear how many people work on voting rights enforcement, nor what the total would be after the department adds to the staffing levels.”)

It’s great that Garland promised to double the enforcement staffers in the division’s voting section — but the exact number that entails is a bit of a mystery at the moment.

What is clear is that the Department of Justice has an uphill battle ahead of it without two key pieces of legislation under debate in Congress. The first, the For the People Act, would block states from gerrymandering electoral districts to disenfranchise minority voters. The second, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, would restore the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act and expand it to cover all 50 states. (Neither of them are looking like they're going to pass the Senate anytime soon, for reasons I have already yelled about this week.)

Garland called for the passage of both in his speech, basically hinting that it will be tough going without them — but he said his department wouldn’t wait for Congress to act.

“Many things that are open to debate in America,” he said. “But the right of all eligible citizens to vote is not one of them.”

He’s correct, of course. I just worry that with no help from Congress, Garland’s Justice Department will be basically rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as the damage from the GOP’s voter suppression sinks democracy as we know it.