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Voting Rights...for Some

The Justice Department harasses Cuyahoga County.

Aug 23, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 46 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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Deputy voting rights section chief Rebecca Wertz was also at the meetings. She has recently been in the news for encouraging local authorities to apply for waivers to opt out of legislation requiring the provision of ballots to military personnel. Wertz falsely asserted that there was great discretion in application of provisions that in fact are crystal clear. Senator John Cornyn was so enraged by this conduct he has demanded an oversight hearing.

Wertz, Culliton-Gonzalez, and their colleagues have as little legal precedent as they do evidence to help them badger Cuyahoga officials into submission.

J. Christian Adams, the New Black Panther party trial attorney who resigned in protest in June, says that there are steep evidentiary burdens on the department in 4e cases, and local officials “would be nuts to concede anything to them.” Using targeted ballots to discrete precincts or providing Spanish ballots only upon request are, Adams explains, among the “many ways to make a marginal change that is less expensive than what DoJ wants, but defendants rarely know about all of the discrete lines of attack.” He adds, “There is a reason they don’t want to put anything in writing.”

The Justice Department is playing a game of legal chicken with local officials. As Adams explains, “The Department of Justice has never really had to litigate 4e issues fully and therefore no court has ever offered clarity about liability or remedial obligations. While there are some older cases that skirt around the edges, much has changed in the Puerto Rican community since those decisions were made decades ago.” The Justice Department ideologues are betting local officials will sign on the dotted line to avoid the cost and controversy of a suit labeling them as civil rights violators.

In the last 18 months, we have seen how much power and discretion federal voting rights attorneys have. The Obama administration seems bent on disregarding any voting rights provisions it does not like (or simply refusing to enforce them against minority defendants) while stretching other provisions beyond all recognition. Absent sufficient congressional oversight and media scrutiny to temper such abuses, local officials will have to decide whether to knuckle under or stand their ground. If Cuyahoga officials stand up to the Obama onslaught, they may encourage other jurisdictions to do the same.

Jennifer Rubin is Commentary magazine’s contributing editor..

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