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Merrick Garland Promises A Plan To Protect Voting Access

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Attorney General Merrick Garland delivered an impassioned defense of voting rights today, and he vowed to staff up the Justice Department's legal muscle to protect access to the ballot.

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MERRICK GARLAND: So, again, the Civil Rights Division is going to need more lawyers.

KELLY: His statements come as lawmakers in dozens of states have proposed legislation that restricts access to voting. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas was listening in. Hey there, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: All right. Tell me a little bit more what - about what Merrick Garland said today on voting rights.

LUCAS: Well, I think, first off, it's worth emphasizing what you said at the top. This was a fierce defense of voting rights and the federal government's role in protecting them. Here is how Garland spelled out how essential this issue is in his mind.

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GARLAND: There are many things that are open to debate in America, but the right of all eligible citizens to vote is not one of them.

LUCAS: He delivered a history lessons of sorts with his speech. He said that there has been progress on the right to vote over the years, but it's never been steady, particularly for Black Americans and other people of color. He said that periods when voting rights have been expanded have often been met with fierce pushback and efforts to rein those votes - those rights in. And the country is facing such a period right now, he said. And he noted that at least 14 states have passed new laws just this year to make it harder to vote.

KELLY: Right, which prompts my next question. What exactly does he want the Justice Department to do to protect voting rights, given that voting is governed by states?

LUCAS: Well, one thing is just the clear message that this is a priority for the department. That message that he delivered today is a big message. But there were a number of concrete things as well. First, he vowed to double the number of staff in the Civil Rights Division working on the enforcement of voting rights protections. He said the department is taking a close look at laws that try to restrict voter access. If they violate federal law, he said, the department will take action. He also had this to say about laws that are already on the books.

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GARLAND: We are also scrutinizing current laws and practices in order to determine whether they discriminate against Black voters and other voters of color.

LUCAS: The department is also going to scrutinize post-election audits, such as the Republican-led one in Arizona that has attracted so much attention as of late. And he also said this - the department is aware of the dramatic increase in threats against state and local election workers. And he said the Justice Department will investigate any violation in that front of federal law.

KELLY: Another thing that caught my ear is that he weighed in on these two voting rights bills that are currently before Congress - the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act. Not clear either will pass, but what did he have to say?

LUCAS: Well, he basically called on Congress to pass both of those bills. He pointed out a couple of times in his speech that a Supreme Court decision from a few years ago gutted what is argued - what was arguably the Justice Department's most effective tool for protecting the right to vote. That has hampered the department in its efforts in recent years to protect voting rights. Those two bills before Congress, he made clear, would help them.

KELLY: Just real quick, Ryan, Garland, of course, was speaking on a day when just some of the big news is these revelations about the Trump-era Justice Department and its efforts to investigate leaks. Did the current attorney general weigh in on that?

LUCAS: He did not. This was a formal speech. He didn't take questions. But the Justice Department's inspector general did announce a review today of the DOJ's use of subpoenas to obtain communication records of journalists and members of Congress. This comes, of course, a day after news broke that the Trump-era Justice Department had secretly subpoenaed Apple for metadata of two Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee, as well as former and current staff and even family. The inspector general is going to review whether the proper policies were followed in these investigations and whether any of this was based on improper considerations.

KELLY: And I'll note, we had one of those two Democratic lawmakers, Eric Swalwell, on another portion of the show tonight. That's NPR's Ryan Lucas reporting. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.