Attorney General News Conference
March 7, 2001 11:00am
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, good morning. Let me thank all of you for coming this morning. Nice to be with you again.
There is in the American system of democracy a fundamental principle -- one-man/one vote -- and its fundamental to the principles of our country. It's a principle that I pledge to protect. Every American should have access to places of voting. American voters should neither be disenfranchised nor defrauded. Both voter access and voter integrity are essential to the American system of governance and government.
Today I am announcing a voting rights initiative. It will focus structurally in two main areas of concern: preventing abuses of voting rights by barriers that would somehow keep people from voting -- we need to make sure those don't exist; and prosecuting abuses of voting rights by individuals or organizations that somehow disenfranchise individuals by barriers between those individuals and the voting privilege, or disenfranchise individuals by virtue of vote fraud. My focus is on protecting voting rights through voting reform, through election monitoring, and the prosecution of voting violations. So we will have two categories in the structure -- a category of prevention and a category of prosecution.
As you know, the Department of Justice plays a pivotal role in protecting voting rights, and this department has a history, a heritage and years of experience in this area. Since the late 1960s, the Civil Rights Division has had primary responsibility for the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. And when the National Voter Registration Act went into effect in 1995, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department likewise acquired responsibility for the enforcement of that law.
We not only work with those particular laws by virtue of monitoring and providing observers and the like; we work to enforce the law. And that requires the elderly and disabled to have access to voting places and ballot access. It requires jurisdictions with limited English-speaking populations to be provided with bilingual materials and other assistance. It requires that our overseas military in a joint effort with the Defense Department to have the capacity to readily exercise their right to vote. These efforts over the years have been accompanied by a dramatic increase in voter access.
Before the Voting Rights Act, the percentage of African Americans registered to vote was in the low teens in some states. Today that percentage is nearly equal to the overall voter registration rate. Before the Voting Rights Act, there were less than 10 Southern African American legislators. Today that numbers is in the hundreds. The exact number is in excess of 250 of African Americans serving as legislators in this country.
Enforcement of voting rights laws have opened polling places to the elderly, to the disabled, and to persons with limited proficiency in the English language. Today's initiative will follow in this heritage and tradition established by this department, and it will of course, as I mentioned, be in the framework of two main thrusts -- a thrust for prevention of problems; and obviously an effort in terms of prosecuting offenses.
First, prevention. We have a remarkable opportunity this year. Our recent voting irregularities have achieved national attention, and have focused the national will on voting reform. As a result, state and local governments, together with the Congress, will have the opportunity to undertake voting reform efforts. We should take advantage of this opportunity. We will work with governors, with secretaries of state and the Congress to implement voting reform.
I am directing that the assistant attorney general for civil rights, when confirmed, appoint a senior counsel for voting rights to spearhead the effort in terms of voting reform with state and local voting and election officials. This new senior counsel for voting rights will examine recent elections to determine good practices; will communicate these practices as well as the divisions experience to local governments; and generally act as a clearinghouse for voting reform issues. His or her job, this new senior counsel for voting rights, will be to learn the best solutions to our reform challenges.
Our experience on voting issues, acquired over a period of 35 years, is a resource that we should make available to the states, to counties, and to localities, now working on voting reform efforts. The senior counsel for voting rights will do that.
The second point in the prevention strategy: the Justice Department should in coordination with local governments monitor and observe elections to ensure that voting rights are protected. This week, for example, we sent attorneys from the Civil Rights Division to monitor yesterday's election in St. Louis. Last week, on February 27th, I assigned 25 federal observers to observe election procedures in Cicero, Illinois, to help ensure poll access for minority voters. In both cases our efforts were coordinated with local governments. And I must say this is important -- local governments are ultimately responsible for running elections. And to the extent that we can work well with them and cooperate with them to elevate the quality and integrity of those elections, the accessibility of the polling places and the capacity of voters to cast their ballots, we will have achieved our purposes.
Today I am announcing an increased emphasis on our monitoring program. I am directing the Civil Rights Division's Voting Section to focus greater resources on the use of federal election monitors and election observers.
Number three, I am allocating additional resources to the Civil Rights Division's Voting Section to better secure voting rights for all Americans. There are currently 36 attorneys in the Voting Rights Section. Today I am allocating additional resources to increase the number of attorneys in that section by eight, to a total of 44 attorneys. I think that's about a 22 percent increase in the resources by way of attorneys assigned to that task. And I will ask for an additional increase in next year's budget.
I recognize that sometimes prevention efforts are inadequate, that prevention alone will not seek to secure the rights of Americans to vote -- all Americans to vote. And I believe that there will be times when we will simply have to do more than just be involved in prevention. We will have to be involved in prosecution -- and that takes us to the second structural component of the plan.
Since November, thousands of citizens have contacted the Justice Department to report voting irregularities. We have alsoreceived complaints from other sources, including organizations like the NAACP. These allegations include violations of anti-discrimination and anti- intimidation provisions, language minority provisions, and the National Voter Registration Act.
Last week I met with the Congressional Black Caucus. They indicated to me that these investigations and investigations of complaints like these were a top priority with the caucus. We continue to review each allegation carefully. Let me be clear: we will take action if we find evidence that any American is being excluded from polling places. We will take action if we find evidence of voting or election fraud. We will take action if we find evidence that the elderly or disabled are illegally denied access to places of voting. When voting rights are violated, the Justice Department will investigate, and as appropriate prosecute vigorously.
I am instructing the Civil Rights Division to work closely with the Public Integrity Section to enforce voting laws, so that Americans' votes are not diluted by vote fraud. It would be an irony indeed to work to secure the right of every American to vote, but then not to safeguard that right by making sure that the vote remains undiluted by manipulation, contamination, or some shortfall in integrity, or outright voter fraud.
The assistant attorney general for civil rights-designate is particularly qualified to pursue such prosecutions. Additional manpower along with his prosecution experience will be an important asset to the department in achieving these objectives. The civil rights assistant attorney general-designee is a well known federal prosecutor and a strong advocate for civil rights in urban America. He has a history of tough prosecution in criminal and civil rights cases. He and the senior counsel for voting rights, which will be a person of his appointment and choosing, will be charged with implementing this voting initiative, and I believe as a result that we will have an outcome which is a superior opportunity for every American to exercise her right or his right to vote in the elections of our republic. I thank you for coming, and I would be pleased to respond to your questions. We'll start right here.
Q (Off mike) -- increase the emphasis on voting rights enforcement. Can you also tell us how many more monitors will you put out there? And what's going to be your criteria for sending monitors? Will monitors -- (off mike)?
ATTY. GEN. ASHCROFT: Our nation is aware of the challenge in a unique way this year that's reflected in making sure that every person has a right to vote. Part of that is a response to the fact that the election was close enough that people said, Wow, each vote counts. We have got to be careful with each vote. And obviously that was probably most dramatically played out in the national consciousness on the stage that would be Florida, where we watched with particularity the evaluation of ballots, and for you all, I don't need to tell you about that -- you know that as well as us.
So there is a unique opportunity here. That opportunity obviously is accompanied by an elevated number of complaints. All those things together combine to make this situation a challenge which we can respond to constructively to improve our performance. And that's what we are going to do.
The second part of your question was about observers and monitors. I think, as you well know, the Voting Rights Act, when it provides for observes, provides for them in a limited geography in the country. And there are other areas where we need to be able to help people be assured of the quality of their elections. So we can send monitors in those cases if they are not the same as the official observers under the Voting Rights Act. We can still help assure that.
We will try and do that on an as-needed basis. And obviously I think we will make an effort to respond to situations where there is a credible need for our presence. I don't think this is a time when I'm -- let me start that over again -- I think I started it wrong. This is not a suggestion that we need to federalize every election. We understand that there are real responsibilities for local election officials and for states, but we want to help in a partnership that relates to providing the right integrity for elections. So I don't think you can expect all the elections in the country to have federal observers. That would be inappropriate, unneeded. But I think what our clear needs we are going to do our best to meet those needs we might have as they come down the road.
Q After you had your meeting last week with the Congressional Black Caucus, the vice chairman came out and expressed the view that the Black Caucus and others remained convinced that there were in many instances voter fraud in Florida. Before you arrived here, Attorney General Janet Reno sent Justice Department attorneys down to look into this matter. Can you tell us what the Justice Department found?
ATTY. GEN. ASHCROFT: No, I can't. It would not be my practice to comment on findings of investigations, or comment on investigations. I think it's well known that we have a number of investigations that have been undertaken in the aftermath of the election in response to circumstances brought to our attention -- and that's about all I should say.
Q But aren't you going to have to let us know at some point whether there was fraud?
ATTY. GEN. ASHCROFT: That may be the case.
Q There's considerable interest in trying to repair the way the states vote to make sure the voting systems work - Congress is doing it. From what you know, is the senior counsel for voting rights here at the Justice Department going to be the only full-time person in the federal government? Will that person be the clearinghouse for the entire federal government on helping states with this?
ATTY. GEN. ASHCROFT: That person will coordinate our assistance in the Justice Department to state and local governments in terms of improved voting access, improved voting integrity, improved voting opportunity. I really can't say whether there will be others who somehow don't work through this in other aspects of the federal government. But we want a renewed emphasis, and we want this emphasis to be not only prosecutorial, which we will -- we will assign additional attorneys and the like -- but we want it to be provincial. We want to help avoid problems. And that's -- you know, that's
consistent with sort of the monitoring approach. We don't want just to monitor in order to apprehend people.
We would like to monitor some elections where we think there might be problems, and announce the existence of monitors to help people avoid problems, because rather than correcting voting abuses we would like to prevent some. So the senior counsel will be the person in this department who coordinates our activities for assistance.
Q (Off mike) -- Justice Department would take the lead here. But it's hard to think of a role for the Agriculture Department or Housing. Do you know whether there will be a separate person in the White House that will also do this? Or have you heard of any other person? This is the first time I heard of a full-time staffer in the government who will be helping --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I know of no other person who will be involved with that. But I am not in a position to make announcements about either the Department of Agriculture -- (laughter) -- or elsewhere. It does seem logical that it would be here, and that's why we have taken this initiative. We think it's our responsibility -- clearly the Justice Department's heritage in this respect is one that the rest of the federal government does look to and respect. And I would anticipate that this person will be at the center of these activities.
Q (Off mike) -- already been some commentary about his experience or lack thereof on civil rights issues. Now, you talked about his experience regarding law enforcement and civil rights. Does he have the broad experience regarding other civil rights concerns, particularly discrimination, to address he issues that some of the critics have come to you and complained to you about?
ATTY. GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, let me just say that Ralph Boyd is an outstanding individual. He brings a set of credentials, both professional and personal, to this responsibility that are literally inspiring. He's a tough prosecutor. He obviously was very influential in the reduction of very serious crime in the Boston area when he worked in the Justice Department efforts there. He was the editor of Harvard's Civil Rights Civil Liberties Law Review, which is not indicative of someone who doesn't have an interest and understanding of this area. He serves on the Massachusetts Governor Cellucci's council or diversity group effort there. His father founded the NAACP chapter in Schenectady, New York. His own heritage includes working in the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama one summer. He has a significant civil rights set of experiences that I think are important. Before going to the U.S. Attorney's Office, he routinely took cases on behalf of indigent tenants whom he defended in the Boston Housing court in eviction proceedings. In 1988, he had a case where he prosecuted four civil rights actions against an alleged Boston slum lord on behalf of 40 or 50 African American low-income tenants. In 1986 he handled a pro bono case for a young African American man who had filed a complaint for being arrested without probable cause -- being arrested basically because there wasn't much more than just the fact that he was black.
In 1988, he represented a class of inmates in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections who alleged that they were being charged, disciplined and punished based on unconstitutional surveillance and testing procedures. Presently he's supervising a Section 1983 civil rights action brought by a former inmate against local law enforcement, alleging numerous violations of constitutional rights in connection with the arrest and prosecution of the defendant. This is another pro bono action. What we have here is a profile of an individual who is a very tough prosecutor, capable litigator, who has sensitivity and heart for representing individuals whose rights have been abused, civil rights have been abused. I think this is a profile of anindividual who will serve America very well.
I happen to know about him and his family. He's a married person, and he and his wife have three children of their own. They adopted two African American children out of foster care as well as their own children. This is an individual who has a heart of compassion and a head that is full of the kind of stuff that makes tough, effective litigation and prosecution a reality. He's an outstanding citizen whose capacity will reflect very well on the Justice Department; but, more importantly, will advance the rights of individuals across America.
Q You had a fair amount of luck in achieving diversity so far in many of your appointments in terms of several African Americans, one Asian American. But we haven't seen any women appointees yet. Where are the women? (Laughter.)
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: We will I hope and I expect be announcing a group of individuals to lead the Justice Department that reflect the kind of talent and capacity to have a Justice Department that will serve America well, and I expect women to be significant in this.
As you well know, the number of appointees that we have been able to announce is limited, and part of that is just a requirement that people who are going to have Senate confirmation have the thorough FBI checks and have all the background done. But I believe that we have a wonderful opportunity to serve all America, and that is not gender exclusive --it is gender inclusive. And it is not race exclusive -- it is race inclusive. And it is not exclusive in any way. And my dream is thatwe have a Justice Department of the highest quality, and that that presents us with an opportunity to include all kinds of individuals.
I think the president in his remarks to me is clear that he wants the tone of Washington to be a tone that is a tone of inclusiveness, that is a tone of productivity and achievement. And we obviously have as our aspiration for this department, a department of achievement that includes that kind of tone and that kind of composition. And just like today, no American should be turned away from any voting place. I think Americans of all kinds will find their place in leading the Justice Department, and I look forward to our being able to continue making announcements that reflect that.
Q I was wondering if you have any idea what the record of this division is on prosecuting voter fraud. How many peoplehave been charged with it recently or convicted? Have there been any indictments or charges as a result of the Florida situation? And also a second part: Will this initiative include funding for things like training voter boards, the people who man the polls, and maybe even new voting machines?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: First of all, I don't have a rack up of voter fraud prosecutions. And that -- there would be times where the Civil Rights Division in some of those settings would be conferring with the Public Integrity Section of the department in order to get that done. I don't have -- frankly I don't have the history of the department in terms of numerics in either of those areas, either in voter access or voter fraud, but those are two primary thrusts that we are going to be working on prospectively.
The second part of your question escaped me.
Q (Off mike) -- voting machines and training --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Oh, voting machines -- I don't have the ability to announce funding for voting machines.Obviously if you think about what's being discussed on the Hill, I have heard some discussion of that in that respect.
Coming back to the front row.
Q What are Ralph Boyd's views on affirmative action?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: You know, Mr. Boyd will have an opportunity to express his views clearly. He'll be a participant in the confirmation process, and he would be best at expressing those views than to have me try to characterize them here.
Q Mr. Attorney General, your predecessor, Ms. Reno, was very careful in her language. She described the Justice Department activity in Florida as "reviewing complaints," but she said it never reached the level of a Justice Department investigation; in other words, reviewing the complaints to see whether an investigation should take place. Before January 20th we repeatedly asked her whether these reviews had reached the level of an investigation. Each time she repeatedly said, no, they had not. Can you at least tell us today whether those reviews in Florida have reached the stage of a Justice Department investigation?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: No, I cannot.
Q Could you characterize it one way or the other without compromising --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I think it's best for me to continue her answer there. She did speak with me and she madeclear to me that it would be good for me to adopt and embrace some of her practices, and that's one of them that I'm going to adopt and embrace.
Q But on that issue, she specifically told us that it had not risen from a review to an investigation. She said that several times. "No, it has not," even though the review was continuing. So in that instance, she was willing to tell us at what level this activity is. Are you willing to tell us what level of activity is going on?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: No, I am not.
Q With the indictment yesterday of Juanita Lozano, has the investigation into the Bush debate tapes essentially ended, or are other individuals under suspicion?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I'm not going to comment on that either. Yes.
Q Do you think that the prevention of your voting rights initiative would have prevented some of the types of complaints ofabuse that we saw in Florida?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, I would hope so. You know, I want this to be cooperative. And, you know, the president has made very clear his intention to have a new tone in Washington, but I think part of that new tone would be an effort to be very cooperative with state and local officials. And the president is very sensitive to them.
So the extent that we can do anything that helps state and local officials better achieve the kind of goals we have for voting -- access, not just based on racial matters but based on including those with disabilities, including those who don't have language proficiency that would otherwise provide them with access -- all of these things are important. And I think there are officials of good will at the local level that, with the right encouragement and help, and working together, we can make improvements.
I can't say that any specific complaints might not have arisen had we done this a couple of years ago, but prospectively we want to do what we can to minimize problems.
Q To follow up, you seemed to be suggesting a few minutes ago that you want to send in monitors into areas, even those that are not prescribed in the Voting Rights Act and other consent decrees. Is that what you're --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, I think that's --
Q Can you do that without authorization from Congress?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I think I did this yesterday in St. Louis, for example. And my own view is that when there are meritorious requests and there is an indication that the presence of Justice Department monitors might be a therapy in the circumstance so as to help make sure that the election is carried off in ways that are respectful of voting rights, then we ought to try and do that.
Q (Inaudible.) Would you do it on your own?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, I think -- I don't want to say that we would never act without a request, but very seldom does the Justice Department in Washington know about all the circumstances and settings. And usually because elections are contested if there's a threat or if some people feel threatened about the respect with which voting is treated in a setting, they'll let us know, signal. And that's what happened in this case. Officials in the St. Louis area asked us if we would provide individuals to monitor the election there.
I think the first impulse here was, "Well, that's not included in the traditional authorization under the Voting Rights Act." But my own response when I heard about that is, "Well, wait a second. We want every American to be able to enjoy an access to a polling place which is respectful of their rights." And if we can improve the performance as it relates to voting, let's try and do that and not necessarily be circumscribed by the Voting Rights Act. So instead of -- I think what they're called under the Voting Rights Act is observers. So I just said, "Well, let's call them monitors and let's see if we can be of assistance."
Q General Ashcroft, have you had a chance to review the government suit against the tobacco industry -- (inaudible) - about whether to proceed with that?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Obviously that is ongoing litigation and I'm not prepared to make any comments on it.
Q I'm still confused as to why there's a need for this new division. And if it's not Florida, if you can't say what the concerns were about Florida there, is there an epidemic of vote fraud in this country that we don't know about? Why do you need this new division?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, I don't believe that I want to exclude Florida. I just didn't want to say Florida is the only reason. I think there is a circumstance that exists in the country where we've had great interest expressed in improving our capacity to conduct elections which respect the rights of voters and which provide greater access for individuals and which also respect the rights of voters in terms of counting the vote and avoiding fraud. And to take advantage of this opportunity that is understood in the public to improve that, I think, is one of the things we ought to do. And that's it.
Q So it's a matter of time.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Part of it's a matter of timing. Part of it is public awareness. And part of it is predicated on what's perceived as a need.
Q Two questions. One, would you tell us what your monitors (Inaudible) -- anything about that? And secondly, a statistical question. You say you want to see a renewed emphasis on voting irregularities. (Inaudible.) Is that an historically low number? Do you have any information on how that number has fluctuated over time?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: First of all, I don't have a report from the monitors in St. Louis. As of yesterday I haven't received that report or haven't received a report. I don't know in terms of the fraction of the civil rights division, whether 36 is a high-water mark or a low level. I just know that eight additional attorneys, we feel, would be beneficially devoted towards encouraging better practices in the election. That's about a 22 percent increase in the resource there. And I have a hunch that we could even do better, and that's why I look forward, in the next appropriation cycle, to asking for additional resources to support --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Let me just say this, that I wasn't parsing words when I said "renewed" in any respect to tryand cast any aspersions. I don't want to do that. I believe that there is a significant enough level of discontent surroundingaccess and the integrity of the voting process that we should -- if we don't use the term "renewed," let's use the term"redouble" so we don't cast aspersions on the past. Just say, you know, there is clearly a market, a demand among the peoplewho run this country, the board of directors, the American people, we want better election processes. And that's what we'repointing toward.
Q (Inaudible.) You talk about discontent regarding access, but -- (inaudible) -- much deeper than that. I mean, we saw in the Florida election and in the aftermath of it that there is a -- (inaudible) -- disenfranchisement among many African-Americans who saw what was going on and the allegations, for instance, in Florida, where you heard voters say that sheriffs were turning black men away from voting places, or accusing men who did not have a criminal record of being felons. When you see these kinds of accusations, do you think that your naming this person to this position will be enough to overcome that tremendous feeling of disenfranchisement? And what was your reaction when you heard these kinds ofallegations?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, any time I hear allegations, my response is that when the Justice Department gets credible allegations of the violations of the voting rights of individuals, we have a responsibility. And wherever we find that illegal activities have been undertaken to provide barriers or disenfranchise individuals, we will act. We will act, and not only in terms of prevention strategies, but we'll act in terms of prosecution strategies and we'll prosecute vigorously.
These are steps which we think are in the right direction. As I've indicated in my opening remarks, these are steps which I doubt will be conclusive. I expect to ask for additional resources in the next budget year to provide additional capacity if we find what we believe we're likely to find, that we need additional resources.
Q On one sort of important civil rights matter, what is your view as attorney general on what the Justice Department position should be on the use of affirmative action in public universities when there's been no past proven history of racial discrimination? For example, some public universities have considered race as a factor in admissions purely for the sake of diversity. It's an issue that a lot of people in your party are quite interested in.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I believe the Supreme Court has spoken pretty clearly and is likely to speak again clearly in the Adirand case about racial preferences. And we will enforce the law as it has been defined by the United States Supreme Court. Its last expression on that case in Adirand, which is now returning to the court, but it's last expression was that racial preferences require strict scrutiny because they treat people based on their race rather than on race- neutral factors.
I thank you all for being here. Thank you.