The Justice Department has brought on a well-respected election law professor to oversee its voting section and lead the department’s battles over voting rights during this presidential election year.
Justin Levitt of the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles has begun serving as the deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division at a critical time, with Justice Department lawyers litigating several voting-rights cases across the country. Levitt will hold the position, which does not require Senate confirmation, until next January.
Levitt, 41, takes charge as the Justice Department awaits high-profile court decisions on voting rights in North Carolina and Texas. The presidential election this year will be the first since a divided Supreme Court invalidated a critical component of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Also, more restrictive voting laws will be in effect in 15 states for the first time in a race for the White House.
“The biggest change since the last presidential election is unquestionably the Supreme Court’s decision [on voting rights],” Levitt said in an interview in his fifth-floor office at Justice Department headquarters.
Before the decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act required nine states, primarily in the South, and jurisdictions in six other states to receive “pre-clearance” from the U.S. attorney general or federal judges before making any changes to election or voting laws.
The court, in its June 2013 ruling, did not strike down the Voting Rights Act or the provision that calls for the special scrutiny of states with a history of discrimination. But it said that Congress must come up with a new formula based on current data to determine which states should be subject to the requirements.
Former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. said the decision is “a serious setback for voting rights and has the potential to negatively affect millions of Americans across the country.”
Now, instead of trying to prevent potentially unfair voting laws from going into effect, the department has to respond to the laws — which may go into effect while lawyers for the federal government are trying to stop them — including in the North Carolina and Texas, which the department sued in 2013 after the Supreme Court ruling, Levitt said.
Republican lawmakers in the states that have passed restrictive voting legislation say the laws are needed to combat voter fraud. But critics argue that the legislation, including voter-ID requirements, will disenfranchise voters and could hurt turnout primarily among minority voters.
Levitt would not discuss specific cases, except to say that although the department is hampered by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling, there is “an immense amount going on in the voting section to make sure that the rules we play by are fair, not just focused on this election, but well into the future.”
One of the cases the department is litigating in Texas was brought under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group. The voting section’s approximately 70 attorneys also enforce laws on the accessibility of voting for the elderly and those with disabilities, along with members of the military and U.S. citizens living abroad.
While the primaries are still weeks away, Levitt said that ballots have been sent abroad for voters from New Hampshire who are serving in the armed forces or otherwise living abroad.
“The 2016 election season has begun,” Levitt said.
In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Obama vowed to make voting rights a priority. “We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now,” Obama said. “And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do.”
Levitt, a Harvard Law School graduate with a master’s degree in public administration, was a law clerk to Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. He then served as counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
In 2010 he joined the faculty at Loyola Law School, focusing on election administration and redistricting.
“A lot of people who care about voting care because they’re devoted to a candidate, but for me, the part that’s most important is the voter. Voting is the way we stand up to make the world we want to live in,” Levitt said of his interest in the issue.
For the next year, he is commuting between the District and California, where he joked that his wife is single-parenting their “big dog.”
“Justin is one of the most thoughtful and savvy election-law thinkers out there, with one foot in the academy and the other in the trenches of the voting wars,” said Richard L. Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California at Irvine and the author of “The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown.”
The details of new voting laws across the country and the litigation brought by the Justice Department affect elections large and small — not just the presidential race. Levitt said that ensuring that voting nationwide “works as it should” is a dream job for anyone who cares about a just electoral system.
“It’s something that I am both fascinated by intellectually but I also feel viscerally,” Levitt said. “Talk to somebody who’s been deprived of their right to vote and you get a very strong sense of how very much this matters.”