We spoke with Gupta on Wednesday morning, the last day in her fifth-floor Justice Department office, where pictures of Robert F. Kennedy and Frederick Douglass hung over her desk. The conversation started with the fight to protect voting rights, an issue with long roots in American racism, as Obama indicated in his last news conference as president on Wednesday afternoon.
We shouldn’t be shy discussing that “ugly history,” he told reporters.
“The reason that we are the only country among advanced democracies that makes it harder to vote is it traces directly back to Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery,” Obama added. “And it became sort of acceptable to restrict the franchise. And that’s not who we are. That shouldn’t be who we are. That’s not when America works best.”
But that is the way America works, especially after the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision that largely emasculated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
That ruling “dealt the Department of Justice a pretty devastating blow,” Gupta said. “It took away a critically important tool that we had to ensure that voting changes big and small were thoroughly evaluated in jurisdictions that had a history of discrimination. … We can’t stop discriminatory laws before they go into effect anymore.”
But even with the Supreme Court-imposed obstacle, the civil rights division scored limited victories. One federal court decision nailed the racist intent of voting restrictions, as cited in the agency’s exit memo: “In July 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down a North Carolina law that the court described in its ruling as one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history with provisions that ‘target African Americans with almost surgical precision.’”
“We need to continue to ask ourselves why we are making it harder and not easier for people to vote, especially in light of the lack of any real evidence that voter fraud exists,” Gupta said.