As President Donald Trump attends the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum on Saturday, lawyers for his Justice Department are defending a voting law in Texas that a district court judge found intentionally discriminated against black and Latino voters.
Trump’s presence at the ceremony has already attracted controversy, after civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said he would not attend, saying Trump’s presence was an insult to the people of the civil rights movement. And the Texas case is just one of a series of examples of how the Trump administration so far has failed to advance a key civil right: the right to vote.
In the Jim Crow South, measures like poll taxes and literacy tests restricted African-Americans from casting ballots. As a result, voting rights were a key piece of the civil rights movement in Mississippi and across the country. In the summer of 1964, hundreds of volunteers came to Mississippi to increase black voter registration in the state. Three of those civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered that summer while working to extend the franchise. In 1965, Lewis was nearly killed during a march for voting rights in Alabama. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, a key plank of the civil rights movement, continues to be one of the most powerful tools for protecting the right to vote.
“President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum. The struggles represented in this museum exemplify the truth of what really happened in Mississippi,” Lewis and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who also will not attend the ceremony on Saturday, said in a statement. ” President Trump’s disparaging comments about women, the disabled, immigrants, and National Football League players disrespect the efforts of Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, Medgar Evers, Robert Clark, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and countless others who have given their all for Mississippi to be a better place.”
But given the importance of voting rights in Mississippi, the Trump administration has approached the issue rather differently.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, the Justice Department announced it would switch sides in the lawsuit against Texas’ voter ID law and side with the state. The law set certain requirements for what kinds of ID people could use when they voted, a list that included a handgun permit, but not a student ID. A federal judge blocked the original law, saying it was intentionally discriminatory. Texas implemented a fix for the law earlier this year, allowing voters to present documents that prove their identity. But the federal judge ruled in August that the new law did not fix the discrimination of the old one, and blocked it as well.
On Wednesday, lawyers for the Trump Justice Department stood with lawyers for Texas during oral arguments in the case at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit as they argued the new law was an adequate fix.
J. Gerald Hebert, a former Justice Department attorney in the voting section who is now representing the plaintiffs challenging the Texas law, said the DOJ’s reversal was “pathetic.”
It’s not the only major voting case in which the Trump administration switched sides. In August, the department announced it would no longer support a challenge to one of the ways Ohio removes people from its voter rolls. If a voter doesn’t cast a ballot for two years in Ohio, the state sends them a confirmation mailing. The state then removes them from the voting rolls if they don’t respond to that mailing and don’t vote for an additional four years.
The Obama administration backed the challengers, who argued the process violated a federal prohibition on removing voters from the rolls for not voting. In August, after the Supreme Court announced it would hear the case, lawyers for the Justice Department abandoned that position and said the process was legal. Justin Levitt, who served as a deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Obama Justice department, said at the time the move was “unusual,” because the U.S. government had supported the challengers in the lower courts. Voting advocates said the department was throwing out longstanding policy. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case on Jan. 10.
Civil rights groups also expressed alarm in August after the Department of Justice sent out a letter to 44 states asking officials to outline their compliance with federal requirements for maintaining their voter rolls. Experts said it was unusual for a letter to go out so broadly and speculated the department could be gearing up for lawsuits to force states to more aggressively kick people off the rolls.
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in a statement she hoped Trump learned from the new Mississippi museum.
“From making students more vulnerable, to packing the court with biased judges, to implementing his unconstitutional Muslim ban, to creating the sham Pence-Kobach commission to suppress voting rights, President Trump is a real and present danger to our civil rights,” she said. “He may believe that the fight for civil rights belongs only in a museum, but his policies and divisive rhetoric prove every day that we must continue to demand our civil rights.”
Before he was even elected, Trump began to stoke fears about widespread voter fraud in the United States, saying he believed the election could be “rigged.” He has continued to stoke those fears by saying 3-5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 election, a claim for which he has presented no evidence. While voter fraud does occur, several studies have shown voter fraud is not a widespread issue.
In May, Trump created a White House commission to investigate election integrity, and appointed Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) to run it and other officials with have a history of supporting restrictive voting policies to serve. Kobach also believes millions could have voted illegally last year and supported a law in Kansas requiring people to show proof of citizenship when they register.
Civil rights groups argue the law discriminates against the poor, minorities and the elderly, who may lack adequate documentation to prove their citizenship. A federal judge stepped in to block the law, which would have affected thousands of Kansans, ahead of the election last year. Documents unsealed in that court case show Kobach presented Trump with a plan to change federal law to make it acceptable to impose similar requirements across the U.S.
The commission has only publicly met twice since Trump created it, but Kobach caused an uproar when he misleadingly suggested at one of its meetings and in an op-ed that the 2016 election in New Hampshire may have been swung by illegal voters. J. Christian Adams, another official on the commission, has expressed interest in pushing the Justice Department to more aggressively prosecute voter fraud.
“President Trump’s statements and policies regarding the protection and enforcement of civil rights have been abysmal, and his attendance is an affront to the veterans of the civil rights movement,” Derrick Johnson, NAACP President and CEO, said in a statement. “He has created a commission to reinforce voter suppression, refused to denounce white supremacists, and overall, has created a racially hostile climate in this nation.”
The White House defended Trump’s decision to attend the opening on Thursday.
“We think it’s unfortunate that these members of Congress wouldn’t join the president in honoring the incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “The president hopes others will join him in recognizing that the movement was about removing barriers and unifying Americans of all backgrounds.”