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Statement of Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez Before the Committee on House Administration
Washington, D.C. ~ Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Good morning, Chairman Lungren, Ranking Member Brady and members of the committee.   Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today about the Justice Department’s efforts to enforce the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, and thank you for your leadership on the MOVE Act.

 

The MOVE Act’s enactment in 2009 was the most important advancement in the area of military and overseas voter law in more than 20 years, and we welcomed the new protections it provided.   Ensuring that our military servicemembers and their families, as well as American civilians living overseas, can have their voices heard in the electoral process is a responsibility that the Justice Department takes very seriously, and the Department has made the fair,  aggressive and independent enforcement of UOCAVA and the MOVE Act a top priority.

 

The Department strongly supported the new protections included in the MOVE Act, and the President proudly signed it into law.   After its passage, the Department geared up to ensure the MOVE Act would be implemented successfully across the nation.   We devoted significant resources to coordinating with the Federal Voting Assistance Program and the General Counsel’s office at the Department of Defense, analyzing the changes made by the new statute, notifying states of the new requirements, seeking information on compliance from every state, evaluating state responses, monitoring state compliance with the law, following up on issues with every state, and, where necessary, pursuing enforcement actions against the states and territories.

 

Leading up to the 2010 federal general election, the Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section devoted more than 20 staff members to this nationwide enforcement program.   Just a few months after the law was passed, we contacted every state and territory in writing to explain the new requirements and sought information on compliance.  

 

After the letters went out, we provided substantial technical assistance to states. Our goal was to answer questions, anticipate and prevent problems, and provide guidance that enabled many states to implement effective programs.   In addition to our state outreach, we reached out from time to time to local election officials to obtain information and fill information gaps. A number of states passed laws to ensure that their voting practices conformed to the MOVE Act.   Three such states, Indiana, West Virginia and Florida, are represented here today.

 

We also consulted with DOD as they fulfilled their statutory role to grant or deny waiver requests under the MOVE Act.   Twelve states and territories applied for waivers; five were granted, six were denied, and one state withdrew its waiver application.   For those states where waiver applications were denied, on the same day they were notified by DOD of the denials, we notified them that I had authorized the filing of lawsuits to ensure compliance.   Our attorneys immediately began working with those jurisdictions, and we reached resolutions with all six of them.

 

Overall, the Department took action to resolve compliance concerns in 14 jurisdictions, including 11 States, 2 territories and the District of Columbia.   Of the 14 jurisdictions, we filed lawsuits in five, obtaining one court order and four court-approved consent decrees.   In the other jurisdictions, we obtained four out-of-court memorandum agreements and five informal resolutions (typically letter agreements memorializing changes that the states made to come into compliance).

 

Ensuring that every military and overseas voter who wanted to cast a ballot had the opportunity to do so was our goal, so we took enforcement actions in states where violations affected many thousands of voters, as well as in states where they affected a few dozen.   Our consent decrees in New York and Wisconsin, for example, afforded a remedy for thousands of UOCAVA voters, while the remedy in our lawsuit against Guam affected about 100 voters. Nevada involved one county and 35 voters.   

 

Our quick negotiations with officials in the six jurisdictions where waiver applications were denied resulted in a consent decree with Wisconsin, and out-of-court agreements with the remaining five jurisdictions (Alaska, Colorado, D.C., Hawaii, U.S. Virgin Islands).

 

The Division also filed a lawsuit against New York, which had received a waiver but failed to comply with the terms of the waiver.   We negotiated a consent decree with New York that mandated corrective measures, including an extension of the ballot receipt deadline.  

 

The Department also initiated enforcement actions for failure to comply with the 45-day requirement in States that had not sought waivers, including filing lawsuits in and reaching consent decrees with Illinois and New Mexico, filing a lawsuit and winning a court-ordered injunction following a midnight hearing in Guam and obtaining informal agreements in Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada and North Dakota.

 

The Voting Section’s nationwide effort to enforce the MOVE Act in the 2010 cycle was an unprecedented effort, unmatched in any other federal general election cycle and with respect to any other statute. Since its passage in 1986, a total of roughly 40 UOCAVA lawsuits have been filed; five, or one eighth, were filed in the 2010 cycle.

 

Our efforts benefited tens of thousands of voters in the 14 States and territories where we took action, as well as in states across the country where we worked with officials to ensure compliance without enforcement actions.  

 

Since the election, we have continued our monitoring efforts not only in the 14 jurisdictions with which we had formal or information agreements, but across the country.   Just last week, I met with state elections directors, attended the conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State, and spoke at a conference of the Overseas Vote Foundation. We are working with the Election Assistance Commission to review data as it comes in, and we are receiving data required by the agreements in our cases. We continue to consult with our colleagues in DOD.

 

Our goal in all of this post-election outreach and data review is to learn from our experiences, and to hear from a diverse array of stakeholders as to what went well, where there is room for improvement, and what suggestions there may be for improvements either in the law itself or the procedures that are in place.

 

Some states may need to make structural changes requiring legislative action – for instance, Hawaii has already passed a law moving its primary date. Other states may have to follow suit.  

 

I am very proud of the work of the dedicated career professionals in the Voting Section; their hard work assisted tens of thousands of voters.   I am equally appreciative of the efforts of our colleagues in state government, as well as local election officials, who worked tirelessly to ensure that the servicemembers serving our nation and others living overseas would have meaningful access to the ballot.

 

But I am by no means here to declare victory.   We continue to gather additional information and review the data to determine where we have made progress, and where there is room for improvement.   We continue to reach out to key stakeholders to see what they saw from the field.   There is reason to be optimistic about the progress we made, but it is still too early to tell with precision how well we did, or where there are gaps, and why. One military or overseas voter disenfranchised is one too many. Our goal is and will continue to be 100 percent compliance.

 

The MOVE Act was an overwhelmingly bipartisan enterprise, and I look forward to continuing to work with the committee on a bipartisan basis to ensure its full and effective enforcement.

 

Thank you.

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