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Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights calls for Congressional oversight of Justice Department for lax enforcement

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The Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a citizen watchdog group, has issued a report, The Erosion of Rights: Declining Civil Rights Enforcement Under the Bush Administration.  One of the report sections examines the voting rights enforcement record of the U.S. Justice Department for the last five years and recommends increased Congressional oversight of the Department.

 

The voting section was authored by Joseph Rich, Mark Posner and Robert Kengle who began their report by noting 2005 media reports of the "politicization" of the Justice Department Civil Rights Division.  A primary duty of the Civil Rights Division is to enforce the Voting Rights Act preventing discrimination in voting activity.  Changes in election law in states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination are required to be "precleared" by the Justice Department.  The authors, two of whom occupied leadership posts in the Civil Rights Division, found the Justice Department "made inappropriate decisions and damaged its credibility."

 

"The influence of politics first became apparent only a few months after the Bush administration's political leadership of the Civil Rights Division was put into place in the summer of 2001."  Citing the Mississippi state-redistricting plan, which was replaced by a plan offered by the Republican Party to secure partisan advantage, the report states the change was "extremely unusual and perhaps unprecedented."

 

"In 2003, partisan political concerns again played an important role in the Justice Department's preclearance of the controversial mid-decade Congressional redistricting plan enacted by the State of Texas.  This was the highly partisan plan that had been adopted by the state legislature at the urging of then Republican House Majority Leader Tom Delay."

 

"In 2005, the Justice Department precleared a Georgia law requiring voters to present government-issued picture identification in order to vote at the polls on election day.  The enactment represented one of the leading examples of legislation advocated by a number of Republicans across the country to deal with alleged problems of fraudulent voting at the polls but which would erect barriers to voting that particularly harm minority voters." The white legislator who sponsored the bill betrayed racist intent and said, "If there are fewer black voters because of this bill, it will only be because there is less opportunity for fraud."

 

The report authors conclude, "In sum, the Bush administration has abused the authority entrusted in the Justice Department….and resulted in discriminatory voting changes being precleared."

 

"Congress has conducted only limited oversight of the Civil Rights Division's voting enforcement during the current administration.  Given the concerns that surface when reviewing the Voting Section's enforcement record, increased congressional oversight now and in the future is crucial to restoring the appropriate role of the Department of Justice in the enforcement of federal voting rights laws."

 

The Citizens' Commission report predated the recent political firings of 8 U.S. Attorneys which parallel the attrition of career attorneys from the ranks of the Civil Rights Division.  Under the Bush administration the exodus of career attorneys from the Department has been "unprecedented" according to Jon Greenbaum, who himself left the Justice Department to become director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

 

Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, sees the recent actions of the Bush Administration in a slightly different light.  While partisanship may be at a record level in the Civil Rights Division, bias against minor parties and independents has long been the norm.

 

Winger cites the actions of North Carolina in the 1980's to keep black candidates from the ballot as members of the Socialist Worker's Party by sharply raising petition signature requirements--with the preclearance approval of the Civil Rights Division.  Virginia also made petitioning more difficult in the 1980's to keep a black independent candidate off the ballot for governor, once again with the approval of the Justice Department.

 

Another example from the 1980's was in Alabama were the predominantly African-American party, the New Democratic Party, was driven out of existence by harsh ballot access laws precleared by the Justice Department.

 

In 1994, under the Clinton administration, the Patriot Party managed to elect a black member of the Green County Commission, once again in Alabama.  White legislators were so incensed they raised the petition requirement from 1% to 5%, with the preclearance approval from the Civil Rights Division. 

 

Winger asks, "All of these changes injured African-American voters and other voters.  Why were they cleared?"

 

When Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized the Voting Rights Act last year, it gave hope to many that honest enforcement of the law would be the norm.  However, without oversight by Congress, the passage of the law is little more than an empty promise.

 

Michael Richardson is a freelance writer based in Boston. Richardson writes about politics, law, nutrition, ethics, and music. Richardson is also a political consultant.

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