Strong-Arming the Vote
New York Times | Op/Ed | August 3, 2006
President Bush’s Justice Department has been criticized for letting partisanship guide its work on voting and elections. And party politics certainly appears to have been a driving force in a legal maneuver it just pulled off in Alabama, where it persuaded a federal judge to take important election powers away from the Democratic secretary of state and give them to a Republican governor. The Justice Department says it is trying to enforce the election law, but that is unconvincing. There are plenty of ways to enforce the law without creating the impression that it is tilting the electoral landscape in favor of Republicans.
Alabama is one of many states that have been late in meeting a federal requirement to create a computerized statewide list of voters. Secretary of State Nancy Worley says the delay is due to factors outside her control. Her critics disagree. But whatever the reason, the Justice Department has every right to try to speed things along. The trouble is, rather than work with Ms. Worley to get the job done, it decided to go to court to take away her authority and hand it to Gov. Bob Riley.
Sadly, a federal judge agreed yesterday to do just that, in a one-sided proceeding that felt a lot like a kangaroo court. The Justice Department and the Alabama attorney general, Troy King, both argued that Governor Riley should control the voter database. Mr. King, a Republican, was appointed to his job by Governor Riley after serving as his legal adviser, and when Ms. Worley realized that Mr. King would not represent her interests, she asked him to let her hire a lawyer to argue her side. He refused. The Alabama Democratic Party tried to intervene in the case, so it could argue against giving control of the voter rolls to the governor. The judge, who was recently named to the bench by President Bush, would not let the Democrats in.
The Justice Department’s request to shift Ms. Worley’s powers to Governor Riley is extraordinary. Normally, the government would seek an order telling a state official what to do, or it would ask to have a nonpartisan person appointed as a special master. And the Justice Department’s aggressive stance stands in stark contrast to the forgiving approach it has taken to Republican secretaries of state. After Katherine Harris removed eligible voters from the rolls in Florida in 2000, and Kenneth Blackwell tried to block eligible people from registering in Ohio in 2004, the Justice Department made no effort to limit their powers.
Controlling the voting rolls can yield important advantages, as Ms. Harris proved in 2000. The Justice Department’s actions in Alabama appear to be less about enforcing the law than about wresting control of the voter rolls from the opposition party, and making a Democratic secretary of state who is up for re-election in a few months look bad.
It would not be the first time the Bush Justice Department seemed to play party politics with elections. Political appointees approved the pro-Republican Congressional redistricting plan in Texas and a voter ID law in Georgia, despite objections from staff lawyers that the plans violated the Voting Rights Act.
The Justice Department has enormous power over state elections. It is important that this power be used in a way that appears — and is — nonpartisan. Undercutting a Democratic secretary of state, and taking the extraordinary step of handing her powers to a Republican governor, meets neither test. The Justice Department is giving the impression that it is less concerned that elections be lawful and fair than that they come out a particular way.