Thank you for your kind introduction and for the invitation to be here today.
It is a pleasure to be here with you. As state and local election officials, you play a critical role in our democracy. Your jobs involve many challenging tasks, such as managing the voter registration process and the conduct of voting. All of this takes place during a time when elections are one of the most scrutinized activities that occur in our country. We appreciate your commitment and all of your hard work to make our elections work. We also appreciate your service on the Standards Board and the work that you do with the Election Assistance Commission on its important mission.
Today, I will discuss the U.S. Department of Justice and some of the different areas of our work around elections, and about how we hope to work together with you and your other colleagues in the elections community.
I am the head of the Civil Rights Division, which is one of the litigating divisions in the Department of Justice. As our name suggests, our work entails enforcing the federal civil rights laws with which Congress has entrusted us with the responsibility to uphold. Our civil rights enforcement work is divided among subject matter sections, such as those that work on issues in employment, housing and public accommodations, conditions in prisons and institutions, as well as voting, disability rights, and others. Our work originates with a series of landmark federal civil rights laws enacted by Congress. We are committed to the full and vigorous enforcement of all these laws to protect the civil rights of all Americans.
In the voting realm, our Voting Section enforces the civil provisions of the federal voting rights laws, such as the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Acts, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, the National Voter Registration Act, and the Help America Vote Act, among others. In general, some of these federal statutes (the Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act, National Voter Registration Act, and Help America Vote Act) regulate particular aspects of the conduct of elections for federal office.
The Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act protects the right of absent service members and overseas Americans to register and vote absentee in federal elections.
The National Voter Registration Act contains requirements regarding voter registration in federal elections; this includes voter registration opportunities in connection with applications for driver’s licenses, public assistance, disability services, and through the mail.
The National Voter Registration Act also has rules for maintaining voter registration lists to ensure they are accurate and current; this includes adding eligible applicants to the list who have submitted timely applications. It also includes rules for conducting a general program that removes ineligible voters who have moved out of the jurisdiction or passed away. It also provides protections so that eligible voters who remain in the jurisdiction can continue voting.
The Help America Vote Act contains certain minimum standards for conducting federal elections, on subjects such as voting systems, statewide voter registration databases, identification requirements for first time registrants by mail, provisional balloting, and voter information postings at the polls.
Some of our other statutes (the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Acts) protect the rights of all citizens to vote in our elections. This includes the Voting Rights Act’s historic protections against race discrimination in voting, the requirements to provide materials and assistance in minority languages in many jurisdictions, and the right for voters who need assistance in voting due to disability or illiteracy to receive that assistance from someone they trust.
Our Disability Rights Section in the Civil Rights Division enforces various federal statutes that protect persons with disabilities, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The Section has a detailed guide to making polling places accessible for persons with disabilities, and other guidance on accessibility. The Disability Rights Section also publishes a detailed website with very useful information about the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Section runs an information line to take questions about accessibility issues. Section staff seek to work with communities across the country about accessibility of facilities across a range of activities, including accessibility of facilities used as polling places for elections and other aspects of voting.
In recent years, the Disability Rights Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices have done increasingly more work aimed specifically at improving the accessibility of polling places in a large number of jurisdictions across the country. Indeed, a few weeks ago, the Civil Rights Division settled a case with Harris County, Texas. In particular, we reached an agreement with Harris County to resolve the Department’s lawsuit alleging that Harris County violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by when it did not provide an accessible voting program to voters with disabilities, including accessible polling places. Harris County’s voting program - the third largest in the country - includes over 750 polling places. The Department’s complaint alleged that many polling places in Harris County have architectural barriers - such as steep ramps, gaps in sidewalks and walkways, and locked gates along the route barring pedestrian access – and that these barriers make polling places inaccessible to voters with mobility and vision disabilities.
Our Criminal Section in the Civil Rights Division investigates and, when appropriate, prosecutes certain crimes involving race, color, national origin or religion. In the realm of voting and elections, this means that the Division prosecutes crimes such as violence, the threat of violence, or intimidation based on factors such as race.
I will also briefly mention some of our other colleagues in the Department outside the Civil Rights Division and how their work intersects with elections.
The Justice Department’s Criminal Division is a separate litigating division in the Department. The Criminal Division investigates and, when appropriate, prosecutes election crimes across a wide spectrum of federal criminal laws.
Within the Criminal Division, this work is done by the Public Integrity Section. That Section works in conjunction with U.S. Attorney’s Offices all around the country, as well as the FBI. The Public Integrity Section has literally written the book on this area of the law -- a manual called “Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses” -- which is available on the Public Integrity Section’s website. Typically, the Section’s work deals with criminal offenses related to elections that include a federal office. I understand you will be hearing from the U.S. Attorney here in Memphis about some of that work. This criminal work is critically important to safeguarding the integrity of our elections.
Next, I will discuss the voting rights and disability work of the Civil Rights Division.
Enforcing the Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act to protect the right to vote for military and overseas voters is one of our highest priorities. We monitor Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) compliance for every federal election, including special vacancy elections for Congress. We reach out to states in advance of the 45-day deadline before federal elections to ascertain whether they foresee any challenges with getting the ballots out on time, such as pre-election litigation. We will also reach out to states after the 45-day deadline to make sure the ballots issued on time. When there are issues with ballots not going out on time, we will work with you to make sure appropriate steps are taken to provide a full opportunity to Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act voters to receive their ballots, cast their ballots, and have them counted. In particular, when there is difficulty under state law with providing a remedy, we can seek to negotiate a resolution through a federal court order to ensure that covered voters have that remedy.
During off years, like this year, we also try to identify and work with states on structural issues that may impede compliance during special elections, regular primary elections, and general elections. We identify these issues through our own enforcement and monitoring work as well as through the work done by the Federal Voting Assistance Program at the Pentagon.
Oftentimes, these types of issues have to do with compressed deadlines under state law for allowing candidates to qualify for office, resolving ballot challenges and getting the ballots finalized far enough in advance to allow for absentee ballots to voters 45 days before federal elections.
We have contacted a number of states this year, and will be reaching out to others, about ways (either legislatively, administratively or otherwise) to resolve these structural issues now to prevent the need to seek emergency relief close to federal elections. We hope that you will continue to work with us on these issues to avoid problems in the future.
Section 203 helps ensure that the elections process is open and accessible to all Americans. The Census Bureau makes determinations every five years based on American Community Survey data of jurisdictions where there are significant concentrations of American citizens who speak a covered language at home, and are not well-versed in English.
The most recent round of determinations by the Census Bureau took place in December 2016. There are some 263 jurisdictions currently covered under Section 203 in 29 states. When the new determinations are made, we do outreach to jurisdictions regarding coverage by Section 203 and possible ways to come into compliance. We have guidance about compliance that is published in Title 28, Part 55, of the Code of Federal Regulations, as well as a number of past settlements, all of which are available on our website. These include suggestions about working with affected communities to put together an effective language program and to gauge what polling places may have the greatest number of language minority voters, as well as the greatest need for bilingual poll officials that speak the covered languages.
Most recently, during the November 2018 general election, we monitored voting in jurisdictions across 19 states. But in fact our lawyers visit jurisdictions to monitor all types of elections, throughout every year and all over the country. This kind of work tends to focus on things we may be able to see and learn about on election day, such as whether jurisdictions are complying with the language minority provisions of the Voting Rights Act; whether voters are subject to different voting qualifications or procedures on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group; whether jurisdictions permit a voter to receive assistance by a person of his or her choice if the voter has a disability or is unable to read or write; whether jurisdictions comply with various requirements of Help America Vote Act such as the provisional ballot requirements and voting system requirements; and whether jurisdictions are complying with certain aspects of the voter registration and list maintenance requirements of the National Voter Registration Act.
In all of these endeavors, we do want to make every effort to work with you cooperatively wherever possible.
The Civil Rights Division continues every day to do our critical work protecting the right to vote around the country. Working with a number of you, we have entered settlements under a number of our statutes. This includes many provisions of the National Voter Registration Act, such as those that provide for voter registration opportunities at driver’s license offices, public assistance offices, and disability services offices, as well as those National Voter Registration Act provisions that require states to take steps to remove ineligible voters and those provisions that protect eligible voters from wrongful removals.
We continue litigating cases under the Voting Rights Act. We have entered settlements to protect the rights of military and overseas citizens to vote in federal elections under the Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act, as well as informal resolutions through the passage of state legislation that fixes compliance issues. We have entered into a number of agreements designed to improve the accessibility of polling places and the availability of accessible voting equipment. We have filed briefs as parties and amicus on a number of voting issues in the courts of appeals and the Supreme Court, working with our Appellate Section lawyers in the Civil Rights Division and the lawyers in the Solicitor General’s Office. We also continue our important work on advancing our compliance reviews and investigations all around the country under all of our statutes.
Finally, I think it important to mention a broader point. In our country, we do not answer to kings or queens or dictators, and we reject all forms of aristocracy. We cherish our status as Americans, and in this country, all Americans are equal before the law and equal in their right to select our elected officials by exercising the right to vote.
Our history in this regard is both important and uniquely American.
In 1870, our predecessors amended our Constitution by enacting the Fifteenth Amendment. That Amendment states that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
In 1920, Americans amended the Constitution by enacting the Nineteenth Amendment. That Amendment mandates that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Both the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments authorize Congress to enact “appropriate legislation.”
Despite these Constitutional protections, many Americans did not enjoy the right to vote during much of the Twentieth Century. In particular, many African-American citizens did not remained disenfranchised.
The Civil Rights Movement helped change things, and the Movement led to the creation of the Civil Rights Division, with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and additional Civil Rights Acts in 1960 and 1964. In various ways, these Civil Rights Acts authorized the Attorney General to seek court-ordered enforcement of the right to vote.
The year 1964 also saw the enactment of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. That Amendment provides:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay poll tax or other tax.
The Amendment also authorized Congress to enact “appropriate legislation.”
Still, many African-American voters remained disenfranchised. Civil rights advocates led by Dr. Martin Luther King and others remained determined to end this problem.
In March 1965, Dr. King, future Rep. John Lewis, and hundreds of other nonviolent protesters began a march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery. During the early part of their march, as they attempted to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers attacked them. Mr. Lewis was badly beaten, and over 50 people were hospitalized.
A federal court ordered the peaceable resumption of the march, and a few days later, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he was asking Congress to enact the Voting Rights Act. In a speech to the nation, President Johnson reminded Americans about our founding and our values:
“This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: “All men are created equal”--”government by consent of the governed”--”give me liberty or give me death.” Well, those are not just clever words, or those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty, risking their lives. . . . The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country, in large measure, is the history of the expansion of that right to all of our people.”
The Voting Rights Act represented an act by our elected officials to effectuate the Fifteenth Amendment and to guarantee the right to vote for all Americans. This history informs our work on elections.
Again, thank you for the chance to visit with you today, and I look forward to working with all of you, as do my colleagues at the Justice Department, including those in the Civil Rights Division.