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The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is suing the Justice Department today for refusing to turn over documents related to a controversial letter DOJ sent last year, which sought detailed information about how states maintain their voter rolls. Voting rights groups are concerned that it could be a prelude to pressuring states to engage in aggressive voter purges — the often-flawed process of deleting names from voter registration lists.
“The public has a right to know why the Justice Department sent this letter, and what information it received from states in response,” said Jonathan Brater, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “The Justice Department should be fighting to protect the voting rights of all Americans. We are concerned, though, that this letter may be part of a broader effort to undermine those rights, and we are going to court to find out.”
Non-partisan ethics watchdog American Oversight is representing the Brennan Center in the lawsuit.
DOJ sent the letter in July 2017, requesting that election officials in 44 states share details about how they are complying with federal laws that govern voter list maintenance. In it, DOJ claimed the inquiry was related to “nationwide enforcement efforts.” The Brennan Center filed a Freedom of Information Act request shortly afterward, requesting communication and documents related to both the creation of the letter and any responses DOJ received from states. Earlier this year, the DOJ largely denied the request, producing some partially-redacted pages while at the same time acknowledging that additional responsive documents exist.
“On its own, this letter would be troubling, but taken in the context of President Trump’s discredited ‘voter fraud’ commission and the move to include a citizenship question in the census, it looks like one piece of a broader attack on voting rights,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight. “With just months until Americans head to the polls again for the November midterms, we need to get to the bottom of how this letter was written and why it was sent.”
DOJ’s inadequate response comes as a new Brennan Center report finds that voter purges are on the rise. Between the federal elections of 2014 and 2016, almost 4 million more names were purged from the rolls than between 2006 and 2008.
The uptick is particularly noticeable in jurisdictions that previously had to “pre-clear” changes to their election procedures with federal officials because of a history of racial discrimination. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder ended that federal oversight. Had purge rates continued in these jurisdictions at the same pace as rates in jurisdictions not subject to preclearance at that time, 2 million fewer voters would have been deleted from voter rolls between the elections of 2012 and 2016.