Real Possibility Of A Federal Takeover Of Elections: The Role Of The U.S. Department Of Justice Aiding And Abetting Progressive Organizations To Weaken States’ Voting Laws – Guest Essayist: Catherine Engelbrecht

Executive Overreach in American Elections

Perhaps one of my favorite cultural artifacts from the 1990s was those Magic Eye prints you could find in gift shops just about anywhere. They might look like a random assortment of colorful dots – but with a trained eye, images would practically spring forth from the frame. Sometimes executive overreach will seem as covert as a bull in a china shop. But in other cases – particularly when it comes to elections – misdeeds literally appear before you after the noise and distractions have been filtered out. The Obama Administration’s recipe of courtroom intimidation, activist collusion and bald-faced disdain for state powers to administer elections has laid the foundation for an eventual federalization of every citizen’s most basic form of raw power.

The Soft Bigotry of Voter ID Opposition

The U.S. Department of Justice has been used as the go-to muscle when fighting against election integrity reforms across many states since 2009. The Civil Rights Division of the DOJ might have jumped into the political zeitgeist early on with the bungling of the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case,[1] but it will be remembered for its apparent bigotry in opposing voter ID and other common-sense laws in later lawsuits.

Since President Obama and Co. assumed office, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin have been required to defend their voter ID and other election integrity laws in court under one federal statute or another. Although the factual backgrounds vary between each case, the underlying theory behind opposing such wildly popular laws was strikingly consistent. In a more recent suit involving North Carolina’s law, the DOJ dropped the pretense and admitted that the Administration does not believe minority voters to be “sophisticated” enough to comply with a voter ID law on a larger scale.[2] For the Administration to claim the moral high ground on discrimination in voting, yet justify its positions based on the soft bigotry of low expectations, the net impact of the Obama DOJ’s crusade against integrity reforms is clear: states should not flex their muscles on election administration for any unsanctioned purpose.

Leading from Behind

If you were to venture over to the U.S. Department of Justice’s website and look at all the cases currently being litigated regarding voting laws, the disconnect between rhetoric and reality would be quite apparent. Last year, President Barack Obama told the attendees of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network’s annual convention that “[The DOJ has] taken on more than 100 voting rights cases since 2009, and they’ve defended the rights of everybody from African Americans to Spanish speakers…”[3] How does the President reconcile the rhetoric with the paltry two dozen cases the DOJ has actually brought? In sum, it helps to have allies with litigation budgets to burn.

Fighting voter ID laws and other election integrity reforms has proven to be expensive and largely unsuccessful. Even the DOJ knows that it cannot be in the business of simply chasing the political victory in one courtroom after another. As a result, the Obama Administration has worked closely with ideological partners on the nuisance lawsuit strategy in battleground states over the years. In July 2014, former Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Administration was taking separate action against both Ohio and Wisconsin over election integrity reforms ahead of the midterm election.[4] But instead of bearing the brunt of expenses and labor, the DOJ let the NAACP and other progressive organizations do the heavy lifting. The Wisconsin voter ID law would later survive the attacks and commenced enforcement this year.[5] The Ohio lawsuit was later settled under terms not entirely acceptable to the activist plaintiffs.

Guarding Vulnerabilities

The most brazen example of executive overreach occurred in what would seem to be one of the most obscure offices of our federal government. Whenever a state wishes to amend the local instructions for filling out the National Mail Voter Registration Form,[6] they must submit the proposals to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) for approval – assuming there are actual Commissioners seated.

In 2013, Arizona and Kansas felt it necessary to require a proof of U.S. citizenship when applying for voter registration in those states. True the Vote had previously found that the current system of answering the question, “Are you a citizen of the United States of America?”[7] under the penalty of perjury did not deter noncitizens from becoming registered in Texas.[8] But despite the lack of quorum to decline such a request and clear indicators demonstrating the benefits of citizenship verification,[9] the EAC’s clerical staff rejected the reforms.[10] Bottom line – two American states were denied the opportunity to protect their voter registries from dilution by noncitizen voters thanks to a person who essentially answered a help wanted posting from the EAC.[11] Who needs weaponized, expensive bureaucracies when individual federal employees can engage states in a game of Mother May I? Kansas and Arizona are now forced to seek remedies before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The effort to shift election administration powers from local to federal offices is nothing new. The aftermath of the 2000 election cycle inspired scores of multi-front campaigns to change voting to fit the needs of political interests. The Obama Administration will go down in history as one that worked tirelessly to speed up the centralization of elections using any tool available, regardless of outcome. These divisive, seemingly disjointed tactics might not win every battle, but they made great strides in politicizing what should be dry process matters. It’s up to engaged voters to vigilantly resist these efforts on all fronts.

Catherine Engelbrecht is the Founder of True the Vote, the nation’s leading voters’ rights and election integrity organization based in Houston, Texas. To learn more, visit truethevote.org. 


[1] United States v. New Black Panther Party, MS (E.D. Pa. 2009), http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/vot/misc/philadelphia_bpp_comp.php

[2] North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP et al. v. North Carolina (1:13cv658): Testimony of Professor Charles Stewart, MIT (https://www.scribd.com/doc/243713319/Doc-165-Transcript)

[3] The White House Office of the Press Secretary; Remarks by the President at the National Action Network’s 16th Annual Convention (4/11/2014), https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/04/11/remarks-president-national-action-networks-16th-annual-convention

[4] U.S. Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs; Attorney General Holder Announces Justice Department Filings in Voting Rights Cases in Wisconsin and Ohio (7/30/2014), http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-holder-announces-justice-department-filings-voting-rights-cases-wisconsin

[5] Wisconsin Government Accountability Board; Photo ID Required After April 2015 Election (3/23/2015), http://www.gab.wi.gov/node/3580

[6] Federal Voter Registration Form (Rev. 3/1/2006) ENGLISH pp. 8-25, http://www.eac.gov/assets/1/Documents/Federal%20Voter%20Registration_6-25-14_ENG.pdf

[7] Ibid. p. 4

[8] Brief of the American Civil Rights Union as Amicus Curiae in Support of Petitioners; Kobach v. United States Election Assistance Commission et al. (No. 14-1164), http://publicinterestlegal.org/files/14-1164-ACRU-Amicus.pdf

[10] U.S. Election Assistance Commission Memorandum of Decision Concerning State Requests to Include Additional Proof-of-Citizenship Instructions on the National Mail Voter Registration Form (Docket No. EAC-2013-0004) (1/17/2014), https://www.scribd.com/doc/200599631/20140117-EAC-Final-Decision-on-Proof-of-Citizenship-Requests-FINAL

[11] PJ Media; Meet the Federal Bureaucrat Who Would Not Let Kansas Prevent Foreigners from Voting (5/5/2015), http://pjmedia.com/jchristianadams/2015/05/05/meet-the-federal-bureaucrat-who-stopped-kansas-from-preventing-foreigners-from-voting/

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