If President Obama really believes his State of the Union claim that the right to vote is still “being denied to too many,” he should give Attorney General Eric Holder a serious dressing-down. According to its own records, the Department of Justice (DOJ) didn’t initiate a single case in 2014 claiming that anyone had denied someone the right to vote.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) prohibits any voting practice or procedure that discriminates on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group. The Voting Section of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is charged with enforcing the VRA and other federal statutes protecting the right to register and vote. The section’s web page lists all DOJ lawsuits filed. And there’s nary a one from all of 2014 that charges anyone, anywhere with keeping someone from voting.
Another part of the Voting Rights Act, Section 11(b), prohibits voter intimidation, harassment or coercion. The Voting Section hasn’t filed a lawsuit under this provision since 2009 when it filed a case against the New Black Panther Party for intimidating and harassing voters and poll watchers in Philadelphia. The Justice Department inexplicably dismissed that case after it had already won a default judgment.
The VRA protects the rights of American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives, and those of Spanish heritage by requiring jurisdictions with significant numbers of individuals in these groups to translate all voting-related materials into their language. State and local governments discriminating against such foreign language speakers can be sued under two different parts of the VRA. The Voting Section web page shows no lawsuits filed under these provisions in 2014. It didn’t file any in 2013, either.
Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act protects those who need assistance in voting because they are blind, disabled or unable to read or write. The Voting Section has not filed a lawsuit under this section since 2009.
The Voting Section also enforces the National Voter Registration Act and 2002’s Help America Vote Act. It has filed no lawsuits under the former since 2012, and none under the latter since 2009.
Indeed, in the area of voter rights, the Voting Section has been conspicuously inactive since 2013, when it sued Texas and North Carolina under Section 2 of the VRA. The North Carolina lawsuit, which claimed state law changes would “suppress” the votes of black residents, is already in trouble. A Wall Street Journal report notes that black registration and turnout in the 2014 election was higher than in the previous midterm contest.
The Justice Department did get an injunction against the Texas voter ID law, but it was overturned by the 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals, and the law was in place for the 2014 elections with no problems. The experience of other states that have adopted voter ID laws also casts extreme doubt on the legitimacy of the department’s claim that residents are being “denied the right to vote” because of a common-sense reform intended to protect the integrity of the election process.
Aside from the Texas and North Carolina actions, the Holder Justice Department filed only one other Section 2 lawsuit since Mr. Obama entered the Oval Office. That suit, against a small town in Florida, was filed in 2009 as the result of an investigation initiated and pursued during the Bush administration.
It’s downright odd for the president to claim Americans are being denied their right to vote when his own Justice Department has gone a year without charging anyone with such misconduct and filed only a smattering of suits in the entire six years of his administration.
Of course, this brings up another issue. Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, says Congress need to amend the Voting Rights Act to reimpose the “pre-clearance” provision, which required certain states to get federal approval before they made any changes in their voting laws. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out this anachronistic requirement in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder.
Given the lack of activity by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act, the claim that this amendment is needed or that there are large numbers of Americans — or any — being denied their right to vote is simply untrue. While this may be useful as a political tactic for Mr. Obama and others, it does not reflect reality.
The president’s claim that Republicans and Democrats must agree that “the right to vote is sacred” is certainly correct. But it’s dishonest — and a disservice to the American electorate — to make false claims that Americans are being kept out of the polls and prevented from exercising that fundamental right.
• Hans von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow and manager of the Heritage Foundation’s Election Law Reform Initiative. He is the coauthor of “Obama’s Enforcer: Eric Holder’s Justice Department” (HarperCollins/Broadside 2014). Rachel Miklaszewski is a member of the Young Leaders Program at Heritage.