Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday urged Congress to act to protect the voting rights of millions of Americans.
Garland’s plea fell on the eve of the 56th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, in signing the bill, called “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom.”
“On this anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we must say again that it is not right to erect barriers that make it harder for millions of eligible Americans to vote,” Garland wrote in an op-ed published in The Washington Post. “And it is time for Congress to act again to protect that fundamental right.”
The attorney general wrote about how the 1965 Voting Rights Act gave the Justice Department power to block “discriminatory voting changes,” while providing a check on this power. This authority was later gutted by the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which has left the department powerless when it comes to voter protections, Garland wrote.
“Instead, the Justice Department has been left with costly, time-consuming tools that have many of the shortcomings that plagued federal law prior to 1965,” he said.
Garland has repeatedly affirmed that voting rights is a central priority in the Biden administration, in the aftermath of the 2020 election. The attorney general has vowed to protect Americans’ rights to democracy, and has increased the department’s staff devoted to enforcing voting rights this summer.
“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,” Garland said in a June speech. “The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all other rights ultimately flow.”
Voting rights legislation faces dire odds in Congress, given Democrats’ slim majorities in both chambers, and civil rights groups and activists have grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in Washington as laws continue to pop up in Republican-controlled states that make it harder to vote.
In March, the House passed the Democrats’ election and ethics reform package, and Democrats are expected to introduce a bill as soon as this week aimed at restoring parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and named after civil rights icon John Lewis.
Garland mentioned Lewis twice in Thursday night’s op-ed, pulling a quote from a column published after his death last year.
“Lewis recalled an important lesson taught by Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘Each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something,’” Garland wrote.