The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Long Road to Justice: The Civil Rights Division at 50

Promote Access to Voting

The mission of the Voting Section at the Civil Rights Division is to protect the voting rights of racial, ethnic, and language minorities, thus making it easier for them to access the political process. The voting rights movement was born of a need to promote access as a cure for decades of it being denied to racial, ethnic, and language minority citizens.

In their work to protect the rights of language minority voters through the enforcement of Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, the Division has pursued a vigorous enforcement program. However, in recent years, the Division has more often used its enforcement authority to deny access and to promote barriers that prevent legitimate voters from participating in the political process. For example, the Division's failure to block the implementation of Georgia's draconian voter ID law - later deemed unconstitutional and characterized as a "modern day poll tax" by a federal judge - opened the door for states across the country to pass similar onerous laws. Strong evidence exists that requiring a photo ID as a prerequisite to voting disproportionately disenfranchises people of color, the elderly, individuals with disabilities, rural and Native American voters, and homeless and low-income people, who are far less likely to carry a photo ID. Up to 10 percent of the voting-age population does not have state-issued photo identification. 64

Nevertheless, the Civil Rights Division has sent a strong message to states in recent years that the federal government will not challenge voter ID laws, no matter how restrictive and no matter what the impact on minority voters.

The Division has also recently rejected numerous requests from voting rights advocacy groups to enforce that part of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) which requires social service agencies to provide voter registration opportunities, despite substantial evidence that registration at social service agencies has plummeted. 65 At the same time, the Division has shifted its enforcement priorities to enforcement of voter purge provisions of the law, which in many cases - as in Florida in 2000 - denied the right to vote to thousands of legitimate voters who were taken off the rolls.

Moreover, the Division has pushed states to implement the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in an exceedingly restrictive way. For instance, it advocates keeping eligible citizens off the voter rolls for typos and other mistakes in registration forms made by election officials.

Finally, the Department of Justice's voter integrity initiative, established in 2001 by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, has created unnecessary commingling between criminal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorneys' offices and Civil Rights Division attorneys. These efforts can, if done improperly, result in a chilling effect on the participation of minority voters in the political process, particularly in jurisdictions with a history of disfranchising racial and ethnic minorities.

Rather than promote schemes that deny equal opportunity for citizens to vote, the Civil Rights Division should vigorously pursue enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and other existing statutes, as well as (1) combat voter ID laws that have a disproportionate negative impact on racial, ethnic, or language minorities - like those passed by both the Georgia and Arizona legislatures; (2) ensure that states comply with the NVRA's access requirements, such as those that compel social service agencies to afford their clients opportunities to register and to vote, and confirming that those registrations are processed appropriately; and (3) reinforce the firewall that exists between the Criminal Division's work to combat voter fraud and the Civil Rights Division's efforts to promote voter access.

64. Weiser, W., Levitt, J., Weiss, C., and Overton, S. "Response to the Report of the 2005 Commission on Federal Election Reform," (pdf) Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, 2005.

65. An Election Assistance Commission report from July 2007 concluded that many states continue to ignore the requirements of the NVRA that public assistance agencies offer voter registration to clients, and noted that enforcement of the law by the Division has been virtually non-existent.

Our Members