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Voting Rights Advocates Used to Have an Ally in the Government. That’s Changing.

Voting Rights Advocates Used to Have an Ally in the Government. That’s Changing.

WASHINGTON — A new voter ID law could shut out many Native Americans from the polls in North Dakota. A strict rule on the collection of absentee ballots in Arizona is being challenged as a form of voter suppression. And officials in Georgia are scrubbing voters from registration rolls if their details do not exactly…


WASHINGTON — A new voter ID law could shut out many Native Americans from the polls in North Dakota. A strict rule on the collection of absentee ballots in Arizona is being challenged as a form of voter suppression. And officials in Georgia are scrubbing voters from registration rolls if their details do not exactly match other records, a practice that voting rights groups say unfairly targets minority voters.

During the Obama administration, the Justice Department would often go to court to stop states from taking steps like those. But 18 months into President Trump’s term, there are signs of change: The department has launched no new efforts to roll back state restrictions on the ability to vote, and instead often sides with them.

Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the department has filed legal briefs in support of states that are resisting court orders to rein in voter ID requirements, stop aggressive purges of voter rolls and redraw political boundaries that have unfairly diluted minority voting power — all practices that were opposed under President Obama’s attorneys general.

The Sessions department’s most prominent voting-rights lawsuit so far forced Kentucky state officials last month to step up the culling from registration rolls of voters who have moved.

even some Republicans, the principal aim of laws adding requirements like photo IDs is to discourage certain voters and empower the G.O.P.

The change under Mr. Trump is a stark one from the state of play before the 2016 presidential election, when voting rights advocates and Democrats appeared to be gaining the upper hand in the courts.

With support from the Justice Department under Mr. Obama, lawyers were steadily persuading federal courts to invalidate district boundaries in states like Alabama, Texas and Virginia that were drawn to reduce minority voters’ influence. Voter ID laws and other restrictions in North Carolina, Texas and other states were struck down with the department’s help.

Some of those legal victories have already been undone.

A federal court in Texas had found that the state intentionally crippled minority voting power when it drew new state legislative and congressional districts in 2011. The same court found that replacement maps the state drew also were discriminatory. But in the Supreme Court this year, the Justice Department argued that the new districts were legal, and the justices largely agreed.

an appeals court adopted that position.

Critics have called the department’s involvement a reversal of its previous position on the Texas voter ID law. But the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, John Gore, said the state’s revised law, which was passed after Mr. Trump became president, was substantially different from the one the department’s lawyers had previously assessed.

“The United States never changed its position in the Texas voter ID case,” he said. “The state of Texas changed its position in the Texas voter ID case.” He added: “Now you have a legal and appropriate voter ID law in place in Texas.”

Supreme Court agreed in June, overturning the Sixth Circuit ruling.asked a judge to release them from the case.

The department’s future position on voting issues depends in part on when the civil rights division gets a permanent leader. Decisions about voting rights cases are typically made by the division, which was created in 1957 to battle discrimination against African Americans.

The administration’s nominee for assistant attorney general overseeing the division, Eric Dreiband, has been awaiting confirmation for more than a year; if and when he takes office, the division will be freer to act with more authority.

The nomination of Mr. Dreiband, a Washington labor lawyer who worked for the independent counsel Kenneth Starr during his lengthy investigation of President Clinton, has been widely opposed by civil-rights advocacy groups. His confirmation appears to have taken a back seat to Senate Republicans’ efforts to approve new federal judges.

Under more permanent leadership, the department could step up pressure on states to purge ineligible voters from their rolls under opaque standards set out in the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, the “motor-voter” law. Conservative experts say the lists need to be more aggressively pruned of dead or departed voters to discourage fraud and weed out noncitizens. And they say that under Mr. Obama, the department took no action against states whose registration lists were laden with ineligible voters.

Voting rights advocates said that aggressive culling of the rolls often delists legitimate voters, and members of minorities in particular.

Whatever the Justice Department does next, conservatives said they were heartened by the new direction it has taken under Mr. Sessions.

“We’re happy with what we’ve seen done,” said Mr. Churchwell of the Public Interest Legal Foundation.

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