We need a voting rights champion like Vanita Gupta at Justice, and fast: GOP ex-officials
At a time when barriers to voting are being built through more than 250 bills across 43 states that seek to limit the freedom to vote, we need more leaders who are true champions of voting rights, especially at the Department of Justice.
During the 2020 election cycle, we saw how influential DOJ leaders can be, for better or — in that case — for worse. Although then-Attorney General William Barr eventually, belatedly, came around to admitting the 2020 election was secure and the results were accurate, the concerns about potential DOJ interference over the course of 2020 election were very real, and potentially very dangerous.
Now comes Georgia with a new voting law that President Joe Biden has called “un-American,” “sick,” “an atrocity, “punitive” and “Jim Crow in the 21st century.” And what happens in Georgia, unfortunately, won’t stay there.
Less than six months ago, the two of us were sharing concerns about the unprecedented actions we were seeing from the Trump administration, including rolling back a 40-year old policy that ensured the DOJ could not interfere with ongoing elections, bizarre premature press releases going out from officials in key states about voting irregularities and investigations, and well-founded rumors of pressure from then-President Trump on senior leadership to take action in his political favor.
Drastic change of direction
Despite the agency’s Latin motto, “Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur” (“who prosecutes on behalf of justice”), these brazen actions followed years of a lack of enforcement on voting rights issues. In fact, under the previous administration, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department — entrusted by law with the power to enforce Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — took no meaningful action.
Despite Section 2’s purpose “to ensure that the right of all citizens to vote, including the right to register to vote and cast meaningful votes, is preserved and protected as guaranteed by the Constitution,” the Trump administration all but ignored the section, filing only one new case.
As a former senior Department of Justice official and a former governor, we’ve seen the risks and dangers that come with a DOJ that doesn’t prioritize protecting the electoral process and ensuring that it remains free, fair and secure. By contrast, we also know what it means to have leaders at the department who are truly committed to civil rights and voter protection. Given the coordinated voter suppression campaign we are seeing around the country and the lack of enforcement under the previous administration, we need a drastic change in direction, and fast.
Vanita Gupta on March 9, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)
At her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee this month, Vanita Gupta, President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as associate attorney general, testified to how central these issues have been to her throughout her entire career. “The fight for voting rights and to ensure that every eligible American can access their right to vote and exercise it is foundational to our democracy,” she said.
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As systematic efforts to restrict voting access continue on a state-by-state basis, Gupta will be a DOJ leader who knows how to fight back. As the head of the department’s Civil Rights Division during the Obama administration, she opposed earlier attempts at voter suppression by legally challenging overly cumbersome and discriminatory voter ID laws in North Carolina and Texas. She has also been critical of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling “took away…a core part of the Voting Rights Act that gave the Justice Department the ability to ensure that hyper local changes were not racially discriminatory,” she told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Aggressively fight voter suppression
We need that kind of clear, strong leadership at DOJ, now more than ever. But simply supporting voting rights is not enough. Americans need DOJ leadership that is committed to actively and aggressively opposing voter suppression wherever and in whatever form it is found — especially when it is aimed at historically disenfranchised voters.
It is not enough to get us back to where we were as a country before the recent assault on our democracy, both literally in our Capitol and at the ballot box. We must lean forward in finding not just ways to repair our system, but to strengthen it.
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We must come together, Republicans and Democrats, those of us who have championed laws and those of us who have enforced them in the courts. We need to be doing all we can to protect and defend our cherished democracy. And a true voting rights champion helping to lead the Department of Justice will get us one giant step closer to that all-important goal.
Christine Todd Whitman (@GovCTW) is the former two-term Republican governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001 and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during the George W. Bush Administration. Greg Brower (@GregoryABrower) is a former Assistant Director and Deputy General Counsel of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from 2016-2018. He has also served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Nevada under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
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