President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees will be going through the U.S. Senate confirmation process this month — an opportunity for the public to weigh in on potential leaders of our nation’s important departments and agencies. For attorney general, Trump’s selection is U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions. Unfortunately, he’s the wrong choice.
Sessions has a decades-long record of hostility to protecting and strengthening the right to vote. He supports voter ID requirements and other election laws that would disenfranchise millions of black, Hispanic, young, elderly, rural and handicapped Americans.
As attorney general, Sessions likely would reverse the Justice Department’s half-century of aggressive legal action on behalf of voting rights. Just last year, he publicly complained about former Attorney General Eric Holder’s vigorous efforts to enforce the Voting Rights Act, arguably the most important product of the civil rights movement.
Under Sessions, federal challenges to state laws limiting early voting and imposing unreasonable ID requirements would almost certainly be withdrawn. Justice Department lawyers could no longer be counted on to scrutinize and file suit against gerrymandering schemes that corral African-American voters in the South — generally Democrats — into relatively few congressional and legislative districts so Republicans elsewhere will have an easier time winning or holding office.
North Carolina has been the epicenter in the fight to protect voting rights for all. Thankfully, the courts have overturned the legislature’s efforts to impose onerous voter ID requirements, bar same-day voter registration and severely cut early voting. Still, we need a federal Justice Department that will take strong action against any new attempt by state lawmakers to limit access to the ballot box, instead of standing idly by as our fundamental right to vote is attacked.
Sessions has a long record of statements and actions, including votes cast over 20 years in the U.S. Senate and cases handled as a federal prosecutor, that give us a clear and unsettling picture of his views on voting rights and racial justice. As a U.S. attorney in south Alabama, Sessions brought a case for voter fraud against civil rights activists who were working to register African-American voters; a bi-racial jury acquitted the defendants after brief deliberations.
More recently, Sessions repeatedly has called the Voting Rights Act “intrusive” and has enthusiastically endorsed the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder that effectively gutted key provisions of that landmark law. He has dismissed suggestions that black voters are still being discriminated against, ignoring a federal appeals court ruling last summer that North Carolina’s oppressive voting law passed as the ink dried on the Shelby opinion was drafted “with almost surgical precision” to disenfranchise African-Americans.
Sessions also opposed the Violence Against Women Act and the Matthew Shepard Act, which would classify offenses based on the victim’s sexual orientation, gender or disability as hate crimes.
This is not someone we can depend on to provide the equal justice our Constitution guarantees or protect our right to vote, the core of our democracy. Sen. Thom Tillis and Sen. Richard Burr should vote no on Sessions and tell the president-elect to submit another nominee.
Dennis Burns is chair of Common Cause North Carolina, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging citizen participation in democracy and protecting voting rights for all.