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Voting rights organizations are raising alarm bells about President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Justice, William Barr, whose confirmation hearing kicked off Tuesday in the Senate.
The organizations are saying the former attorney general under George H.W. Bush is likely to purge voter rolls and pursue limited enforcement of the Voting Rights Act if he is confirmed by the Senate, as is widely expected.
Few individuals at the top levels of government have earned such unified scorn from civil rights groups as Trump's former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who reversed the department's position in two major voting rights cases and avoided bringing any new cases to enforce voting protections. Yet those groups are warning that Barr could accelerate the administration's efforts, which they see as disenfranchising lawful voters.
"So far, he has said nothing on the Voting Rights Act and the need to restore it, or on the importance of the Department's role in enforcing other federal voting rights laws," Kristine Lucius, executive vice president for policy at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 rights groups, said in an email as Barr's confirmation hearing was underway.
The prospect has heightened significance because of the 2020 presidential election campaign, which is beginning to pick up steam as Democratic contenders for the White House start announcing their intentions.
Trump claimed in the aftermath of the 2016 election that "millions and millions" of people had voted illegally. The president never provided any evidence for his claim, and a commission that he established to investigate the matter dissolved without locating any.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Right-leaning organizations are hopeful that Barr will take up the mantle from Sessions. They point to recent Supreme Court cases upholding restrictive voter registration practices as evidence that states need to devote more attention to who is on their voter rolls.
"With Sessions, what we began to see was picking up where the George W. Bush administration left off, particularly around voter roll list maintenance," said Logan Churchwell, a spokesperson for the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation. "Barr and the DOJ are ready to go. We want to see Sessions' legacy move forward."
Barr briefly touched on voting in his prepared opening testimony, which was released Monday. "Fostering confidence in the outcome of elections also means ensuring that the right to vote is fully protected, as well as ensuring the integrity of elections," he wrote. Later, he told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that election integrity would be one of his priorities.
But civil rights groups are concerned that Barr, who has earned a reputation for being deferential to executive authority, could act on Trump's wishes in a way that hurts potential voters. Republicans stand to benefit electorally from laws that limit turnout among minority populations and other voters hit by restrictive voting rules.
"You can imagine that with this next election rolling around that if Trump engages in these same kind of games, he is not going to have Barr serve as a voice of reason for him," said Allegra Chapman, the director of voting and elections at the nonpartisan good-government group Common Cause. "He has no appreciation for what voting rights are, and Trump is going to be unhinged when it comes to voting rights issues."
Under Sessions, the Justice Department switched its position in a case brought against the state of Ohio for purging thousands of individuals who did not regularly vote in federal elections and who did not respond to inquiries.
The Justice Department under President Barack Obama had opposed the law. Ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld it in a 5-4 ruling last June that divided the court's conservatives and liberals.
The DOJ under Sessions also swapped sides in a case against a Texas voter ID law that critics said could exclude more than half a million voters. Under Sessions, the department asked the courts to let the law stand. Texas lawmakers revised the law in 2017.
"We saw Jeff Sessions at every turn reversing course on civil rights, but especially on the voting rights cases," said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan nonprofit group.
Clarke noted that Barr authored a 1992 memo titled "The Case for More Incarceration " while working for the first President Bush. The carceral policies of the 1990s, which were pursued by both Republicans and Democrats, hit minority populations particularly hard. Republicans and Democrats now largely advocate for reducing the number of Americans behind bars.
"Whether Barr is somebody who is going to right the course and restore the Justice Department's focus on protecting minority voters is a really big and open question, but the hostility that he presented against minorities presents a cause for concern," she said.
Experts point to a November 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post that Barr co-authored, in which he praising Sessions as an "outstanding" attorney general, to suggest that he is likely to push Sessions' approach forward.
Barr is a major Republican donor who, along with his wife, has contributed $735,000 to Republican candidates and conservative groups, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
"Nothing in Barr's testimony has given any assurance that he will zealously enforce our civil rights, including voting rights," said Lucius, of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "While he mentioned protecting the right to vote he has not acknowledged the unnecessary barriers to the ballot box that too many Americans face."
Churchwell, the spokesman for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, said that it is incorrect to assume that Barr will not pursue voter discrimination or intimidation suits under the Voting Rights Act.
"I don't think you can say it's a Republican-run DOJ, we have to cast aspersions on it," he said. "Take a look at the last Republicans who ran the joint. They were using the Voting Rights Act to the full extent."
Churchwell suggested that the first major DOJ actions under Barr against states who fail to maintain up-to-date voter rolls could come as soon as new data from the midterm elections becomes available this summer.
"Now that the Supreme Court has ruled on the Husted case, this is a black-and-white matter. Either the state is doing its job or it's not. And the Barr DOJ is primed and ready," he said. "Sessions was laying the groundwork."
Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, No. 16-980, is the case decided in June that upheld Ohio's ineligible voter removal law.