(Bloomberg) -- Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department will double the staff working on voting rights issues within 30 days and provide new guidance on early voting, mail-in voting and post-election audits, saying the measures are needed to safeguard Americans’ basic right to choose their government.
Garland, addressing the department workforce on Friday, criticized ad-hoc audits of the 2020 election such as a controversial recount underway in Arizona he said were based on accusations already rejected by the courts. He added that his department will review laws he said will ultimately undermine voting rights.
“We are scrutinizing new laws that seek to curb voter access and where we see violations we will not hesitate to act,” Garland said.
The attorney general’s remarks represented the Justice Department’s most forceful defense of voting rights in response to actions by Republican-controlled states to pass laws that impose restrictions for coming elections. Fourteen states have passed such legislation.
“We know that expanding the ability of all eligible citizens to vote is the central pillar,” Garland said. “That means ensuring that all eligible voters can cast a vote, that all lawful votes are counted and that every voter has access to accurate information.”
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Garland stopped short of announcing any specific enforcement actions, which is likely to upset voting rights groups and many Democrats.
The moves in Republican-led states have included shortening early voting deadlines, adding new requirements for people who want to vote by mail and limiting ballot drop boxes. Democrats charge that the initiatives are targeted at Black and Hispanic voters, but there’s little evidence that these measures significantly reduce turnout by any group.
Recent research suggests that making voting easier due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 either had no effect on turnout or may have given a slight boost to Republicans.
The speech came the same week that a Democratic bill that would set new national standards on elections died in the Senate when West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin came out against it. Garland said that bill and another known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named after the late civil rights leader and congressman, were necessary to help his department secure voting rights.
But Garland also recognized the limitations the Justice Department has when it comes to taking action. For example, he cited the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder that eliminated a part of the Voting Rights Act requiring states to get approval from the Justice Department before changing election laws.
Garland also condemned threats to election workers.
“We have not been blind to the dramatic increase in menacing and violent threats against all manner of state and local election workers, ranging from the highest administrators to volunteer poll workers,” Garland said. “Such threats undermine our electoral process and violate a myriad of federal laws.”
(Updates with more from Garland’s speech starting in the 10th paragraph.)
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