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Justice Department Voting Rights Unit Adapts After Supreme Court Ruling


And, as Jude noted, when it comes to voting rights, the landscape has shifted since the Supreme Court upended the Voting Rights Act. That means big changes for a small unit inside the Justice Department. NPR's Carrie Johnson met its leader and brings us this report.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: I caught up with Justin Levitt at Justice Department headquarters this week where he was brewing a big pot of black coffee.

JUSTIN LEVITT: Work at the Justice Department is always percolating.

JOHNSON: Levitt's voting unit could use an extra boost this year. Since that Supreme Court decision in 2013, the Justice Department no longer has the power to force states with a history of discrimination to get preapproval for election changes.

LEVITT: It's meant a lot more affirmative enforcement efforts. We have to go out and sue rather than blocking bad laws before they go into effect. And that's been a big change for us.

JOHNSON: Big change and a few big cases. Two cover redistricting and voter ID in Texas. A third centers on a tough new law in North Carolina passed right after the Supreme Court ruling. Those cases are taking a long time to move through the courts. Levitt points out the voting unit based at Justice houses just a few dozen lawyers and staff members.

LEVITT: We have been and will continue to be as vigorous as we possibly can with that. Would we welcome a full suite of enforcement tools? Would we welcome restoration of the Voting Rights Act? Yes, we would.

JOHNSON: The Obama administration has been pushing Congress to tweak and restore parts of the landmark voting rights law so far with little success. That's a problem for people like Nicole Austin-Hillery. She works at the Brennan Center for Justice. Austin-Hillery worries that voters this year may not learn about changes in polling locations or cutbacks in the number of sites until it's too late.

NICOLE AUSTIN-HILLERY: If voters are facing problems on Election Day, they don't get a do-over. If a voter can't cast their ballot, they don't get to do it again. That opportunity is lost. That opportunity for them to be a part of our democracy is gone.

JOHNSON: But for conservative election watchers, some advocates are reading too much into the long lines voters have been facing in places like Arizona. Hans von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: That has really nothing to do with the Voting Rights Act and discrimination. What it has to do with is election officials sometimes mispredicting how much turnout they're going to have.

JOHNSON: Von Spakovsky says the Justice Department is spending its limited resources the wrong way.

VON SPAKOVSKY: They've been wasting their time on attacking voter ideas opposed to going after real problems.

JOHNSON: He would like to see the federal government do more to force states to clean up their old voter rolls, for instance. But a lot of people in the civil rights community are moving in the opposite direction mobilizing volunteers and training young lawyers to help through a special Voting Rights Institute at Georgetown University. Penda Hair co-directs the civil rights group called the Advancement Project.

PENDA HAIR: We need resources and attorneys - both volunteers and paid attorneys - to participate in voter protection efforts at the state and local level. We need to cover every polling place. We need to cover every county, and that is a massive undertaking.

JOHNSON: Now is not the time, Hair says, to impose new barriers on people who want to vote. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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