Vanita Gupta Will Work to Protect the Right to Vote as Associate Attorney General

At her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, associate attorney general nominee Vanita Gupta was asked repeatedly about the Justice Department’s vital role of enforcing voting rights laws.

It’s no wonder why voting rights got so much attention: According to the Brennan Center for Justice, state lawmakers in 2021 have already carried over, prefiled, or introduced more than 250 bills with provisions that restrict voting access in 43 states. The hearing also took place two days after the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when a group of committed activists — including the late Congressman John Lewis — put their lives on the line as they were attacked in Selma, Alabama, marching to demand voting rights.

The federal government has an important role to play in protecting the right to vote. The Voting Section within the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is responsible for protecting voters from discrimination, preventing interference with the right to vote, and ensuring that all Americans have an equal opportunity to participate in the democratic process. Gupta, who led the Civil Rights Division during the Obama administration from 2014 to 2017, demonstrated during her hearing that she is the right person — along with Kristen Clarke, nominated to serve as assistant attorney general for civil rights — to lead DOJ’s efforts to enforce voting rights and make the promise of our democracy real. And during her tenure as head of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Gupta championed passage of laws that would protect and expand the right to vote, as well as helped defend against voter suppression efforts.


LEAHY: I was thinking this past weekend was the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday…when I think of my dear, dear friend John Lewis and how hard we worked on that and, of course, we have the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It is now pending. The Shelby County Supreme Court decision stripped away the Supreme Court’s preclearance tools.

The bipartisan John Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore those. Now, someone called the Lewis Act as a kind of partisan power grab…if you restore everybody’s voting rights, isn’t that pro-democracy, not pro-Democratic or pro-Republican?

GUPTA: Senator, the fight for voting rights and to ensure that every eligible American can access their right to vote and exercise it is foundational to our democracy. I have had the honor in my career of working to support that. It is seminal to our democracy. And actually a year ago last Sunday, I was walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge when Congressman John Lewis appeared out of nowhere in the middle of his fight against pancreatic cancer to exhort us to do everything we can to protect the right to vote. And if I am honored to be confirmed as associate attorney general, I will bring that exhortation to my work every day.

The Justice Department has a big role to play in protecting the right to vote, and I do believe that the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore the tools that the Justice Department has to help support that in communities around the country and to do it judiciously and thoughtfully, but with great vigor as well.

HIRONO: I know you have advocated for Congress to restore and update the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Why is it so important to have robust voting rights laws at the federal level?

GUPTA: Senator, a core function of the Justice Department through its Civil Rights Division is the enforcement of the federal voting rights laws that this body has passed. It’s the Help America Vote Act, the National Voter Registration Act, the UOCAVA that protects the voting rights of service members that are serving our country, and the Voting Rights Act.

The Shelby County decision in 2013 took away and devastated kind of a major, core part of the Voting Rights Act that gave the Justice Department the ability to ensure that hyperlocal changes were not racially discriminatory. And I hope that, to honor Congressman Lewis and his whole legacy, that that provision will be restored. But certainly, regardless it will be incumbent on the Justice Department to ensure that all eligible Americans are able to exercise their right to vote. It is foundational to our democracy.

PADILLA: This past Sunday was the anniversary of Bloody Sunday as you two are aware. A day that, 56 years ago, when state and local police attacked peaceful demonstrators in Selma, Alabama as they were seeking to march to Montgomery in protest of Jim Crow laws that denied Black women and men the right to vote.

We’ve come a long way in many ways since Bloody Sunday, but as we know all too well, we still have a long way to go to ensure complete access to the ballot for all eligible Americans. Indeed, in just the first two months of this calendar year, legislators in 43 states have already proposed more than 250 bills that if enacted would have the net effect of making it harder for eligible citizens to register or stay registered or to cast their ballots.

The Justice Department clearly has a critical role to play in ensuring that our elections continue to be fair and free. But its ability to do so has been hampered by the Shelby v. Holder decision by the Supreme Court in 2013. So, my first question is both for Ms. Monaco and Ms. Gupta, how do you envision reinvigorating the Civil Rights Division generally, and specifically its Voting Rights Section, to defend all Americans’ right to vote?

GUPTA: Thank you, senator. As you know, I have spent my career working on these issues of voting rights access and it is something that, if confirmed, I believe the Civil Rights Division needs to use every tool at its disposal to ensure that every eligible American is able to exercise their right to vote and it is something that I know, if confirmed, I would make a top priority.

But I also know that Judge Garland, if he is confirmed as attorney general, knows that is a top priority as well as we’ve just heard from Ms. Monaco. And so, I have no doubt that this will be an important priority.

OSSOFF: As a colleague of mine observed, we just honored the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday when in Selma, Alabama, John Lewis and Hosea Williams and hundreds of others marched into a storm of billy clubs and police dogs and brutality for daring to demand the right to vote for Black Americans in the American south 56 years ago. Congressman Lewis had his skull fractured that day, as you know, for daring to demand the right to vote.

And yet it was just yesterday that Georgia’s State Senate approved legislation so brazen and flagrant and obvious in its partisan and racial targeting, voter suppression legislation so outrageous that even Georgia’s own Republican lieutenant governor refused to oversee the debate of this bill because he recognized that there is no legitimate basis for these restrictions on voting and that it is merely an exercise in the abuse of power using force of law to disenfranchise the people to pursue partisan end.

So, Ms. Gupta, should you be confirmed, and you will assuredly have my support in your nomination for this position, will you commit to using the full power of your office to protect the sacred right to vote, which remains under attack in this country, to make democracy real for every American citizen?

GUPTA: Yes, senator.

If you think we need a Department of Justice that will work to protect the right to vote for all Americans, click here to tell your senators to #ConfirmGupta as associate attorney general.