DOJ finally steps into the voting rights arena to defend the Black vote

OPINION: Most of the Civil Rights cases in the 1960s -- in which Black people’s rights had been violated -- were only successfully adjudicated when the federal government stepped in and sued the states in question.

Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, and Vanita Gupta, associate U.S. attorney general, listen as Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at a news conference at the Department of Justice on June 25, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

In a move that shocked both civil rights activists, and legal scholars alike, the U.S. Justice Department announced last week that it is going to sue the state of Georgia over its newly enacted voting rights restrictions which came into play after the January 2021 U.S. Senate election saw the once solidly red state, flip blue.

For the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke to make such a bold move, says a lot about the Biden administration’s commitment to protecting voting rights gains over the past 60 years. All of this comes on the heels of a disappointing episode in the U.S. Senate, where Senate Republicans successfully blocked even “debate” on the issue of S.1, also known as the For the People Act

For context of what this all means for Black and brown voters in the United States, let’s recap the past six months. In a January 2021run-off, two Democratic U.S. Senators were elected after President Joe Biden’s historic upset win of the southern state’s coveted electoral votes in the November 2020 presidential election. This unexpected outcome emboldened democrats in the south, and enraged Republican leadership in the state of Georgia and nationally.

Ashley Nealy waits in line at State Farm Arena, Georgia’s largest early voting location, to cast her ballot during the first day of early voting in the general election on October 12, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Early voting in Georgia runs from October 12-30. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

What followed was a state-driven, national firestorm of legislative bills being put forth by Republican legislators designed to suppress the Black vote, purge voters from the rolls, and limit access, including giving people drinking water in long lines, and other controversial provisions that were rammed through some 14 states over the past six months with over 253 bills in some 43 states looking to pass further voting restrictions. According to the Brennan Center, that number rose as of May 2021 to at least 389 bills in 48 states.

The DOJ now led by Garland, a former federal court Judge (and Obama SCOTUS nominee), made this move after the Senate Republican caucus shut down the federal effort to protect voting rights and voter access as part of the “big lie” (that Trump won the 2020 election and it was stolen from him) that was put forth by former President Donald Trump in November 2021. This movement by the DOJ is a welcome balm to a festering national wound to defend against Republican efforts nationwide to limit voting access in the wake of Trump’s sound election defeat.

Here is how it works and what it means: 

First, the Supreme Court of the United States has original jurisdiction in a case where the federal government sues a sister state (in this case Georgia) to hear the case. So it will be expedited versus taking a long time. The challenge by DOJ deals specifically with The Georgia state law that imposes new voter identification requirements for absentee ballots, empowers state officials to take over local elections boards, limits the use of ballot drop boxes and makes it a crime to approach voters in line to give them food and water. These “restrictions” are seen as violating the Votings Rights Act of 1965, as amended. That is what gives the federal government standing to sue Georgia.

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at a news conference, as (L-R) Lisa O. Monaco, Deputy Attorney General, Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, and Vanita Gupta, associate U.S. attorney general, look on at the Department of Justice on June 25, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images).

Secondly, most of the Civil Rights cases in the 1960s — in which Black people’s rights had been violated — were only successfully adjudicated when the federal government stepped in and sued the states in question for violation of federal law. For her part, newly minted Civil Rights AG Kristen Clarke said: “These legislative actions occurred at a time when the Black population in Georgia continues to steadily increase and after a historic election that saw record voter turnout across the state, particularly for absentee voting, which Black voters are now more likely to use than White voters.”

She added, “Our complaint challenges several provisions of SB 202 on the grounds that they were adopted with the intent to deny or abridge, Black citizens, equal access to the political process.”

Clarke is spot on, and she is the embodiment of why representation, and inclusion matter at the highest levels of our government. If the Republicans’ blatantly racist actions are to be stopped, DOJ has just stepped up to save the day, press Congress and protect the voting rights of Black and brown votes in America before the 2022 election takes place.


Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio.

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