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Religious Zeal in the Justice Dept. Impacts Civil Rights

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Weekly Voting Rights News Update

This an entry in a series of blogs to keep people informed on current election reform and voting rights issues in the news.

Featured Story of the Week:

Justice Dept. Reshapes Its Civil Rights Mission - New York Times

“The shift at the Justice Department has significantly altered the government's civil rights mission,” in favor of religion rather than race, the New York Times reported Thursday.

The Civil Right Division had dramatically reduced “the complex lawsuits that challenge voting plans that might dilute the strength of black voters.” Early this year, only one such case had been initiated “compared with eight in a comparable period in the Clinton administration.”

One former civil rights division employee said bringing “worthy civil rights cases” was “like a black hole” in that political appointees frequently vetoed or questioned investigations. She said she noticed a change in “the quality of people who were chosen” after she was hired in 2000 by the Justice Department: “It was obvious what they had: conservative and religious bona fides.

The changing mission is evident regarding voting rights. While spokesperson for the Justice Department Cynthia Magnuson claimed that more voting rights lawsuits have been brought under President Bush compared to the Clinton administration, the NY Times reported that closer examination reveals that most of these cases involved “a different part of the law,” requiring voting materials to be available in different languages. But, former Voting Section Chief Joseph Rich said these cases may easily be brought by private groups. Voting dilution cases, however, may only be brought by the federal government, which has the resources to do so. These cases are sparingly handled by the Justice Department today. One such case was actually the division's first case ever on behalf of white voters who were allegedly intimidated at the polls by a black political leader in Mississippi.

A religious slant is transparent in the criminal section of the civil rights division. Once focusing on hate crimes or police brutality, the criminal section “began taking on human trafficking cases that had previously been handled elsewhere.” Several cases were brought against people charged with “bringing women into the country to work in brothels.” Such cases were seen “akin to combating slavery” by new employees with religious backgrounds.

“'They are engaging in freewheeling social engineering, said Ayesha Khan, counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and “using the power of the federal government to put in place an ideological, not constitutional agenda.”

The NY Times identified Gonzales, who “survived a climactic no-confidence vote in the Senate Monday,” as “accelerating” the change in the Justice Department, which began with his predecessor John Ashcroft. Gonzales has cited cases against religious discrimination as the most important causes of his agency. “Aside from any political benefit of satisfying conservative groups, the Justice department's shift has brought a more subtle dividend: a defense to the criticism leveled at past Republican administrations that they were half-hearted about civil rights enforcement.”

In Other News:

Following a unanimous decision by the Georgia Supreme Court Monday that threw out a challenge to the state’s voter ID law, the Georgia’s election board said the state should “move forward” in requiring photo ID at the polls, according to the Associated Press. The law is expected to be in effect for local elections in September. A voter ID requirement for primary elections was approved in Mississippi, according to the Associated Press. U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper ruled that party registration and voter ID would prevent non-party members from voting political parties' primary election, according to the Commercial Appeal. He is giving the Legislature until April 1, 2008 “to pass laws adopting a statewide system of party registration that would require voters to carry a voter registration card and a photo ID to the polls in primary elections, not general elections.” Republican candidate for secretary of state, Delbert Hoseman, called the decision “one of the most important rulings in Mississippi on voting rights since the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” and said he would also support voter ID in general elections. Read more on voter ID.

The Associated Press reported that Florida's recent moves to restore voting rights of certain types of former felons has restored voting rights to more than 15,000 in two months, but the review process is still slowing down the restoration. “Since early April, the Department of Corrections has sent the Florida Parole Commission the names of 105,000 people it believes meets the criteria.” A review is required because felons convicted of murder or sex crimes are exempt from the rule.

This Sacramento Bee story reports on voter registration rates of teens. According to the Washington D.C. organization Yong Voter Strategies, the number of voters between 18 and 29 – a potential voting bloc of 44 million – grew from 15. 8 million in 2000 to 20.1 million in 2004. In Sacramento County, the number of registered 18-19 year olds rose with 67% voting in the midterm election last fall. Iraq is the leading issue that drives political interest in young people, according to Young Voter Strategies.

Erin Ferns is a Research and Policy Analyst with Project Vote’s Strategic Writing and Research Department (SWORD).

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