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 Donald 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 Barack Obama’s attorneys general.
In the national battle over voting rights, the fighting is done in court, state by state, over rules that can seem arcane but have the potential to sway the outcome of elections. The Justice Department’s recent actions point to a decided shift in policy at the federal level: toward an agenda embraced by conservatives who say they want to prevent voter fraud.
“They’re showing deference to the states when it comes to issues like voter ID,” said Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation, which advocates tighter restrictions on voter registration. “If a state sees the need for a prophylactic capability to prevent fraud, then it can.”
Almost all researchers who have studied the issue have concluded that voter fraud is rare in the United States. A Trump-appointed commission investigating the issue disbanded in January without presenting any evidence of widespread impropriety.
Instead, according to critics of the administration and even some Republicans, the principal aim of laws adding requirements like photo IDs is to discourage certain voters and empower the GOP.
The change under 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 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.
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.
In Ohio, the Obama Justice Department argued that a state policy of scrubbing infrequent voters from its rolls if they failed to reply to a single mailed warning violated federal law. The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, striking down the Ohio law.
But when the case reached the Supreme Court in 2017, Trump’s Justice Department reversed course, saying Ohio’s aggressive purges of nonvoters met federal standards even if voters who mistook the notices for junk mail — as many did — were disenfranchised as a result. The Supreme Court agreed in June, overturning the 6th Circuit ruling.
The Texas ID and Ohio voter-roll cases stand out for a little-noted reason: The career lawyers in the department’s civil rights division who perform the bulk of legal work on voting cases do not appear in their normal roles in the government’s latest briefs. Instead, Trump administration political appointees were the ones who took responsibility for the new positions.