In 1985, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), then a U.S. Attorney in Alabama, led the prosecution of three African American civil rights activists, accusing them of committing voter fraud by forging absentee ballots they collected through a registration drive. The case has since become a notorious example of Republican-led efforts to suppress votes in the name of “voter fraud.”
But during the first day of his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Sessions described the litigation as a “voting rights case.”
“The voter fraud case my office prosecuted was in response to pleas from African-American, incumbent elected officials who claimed the absentee ballot process involved a situation in which ballots cast for them were stolen, altered and cast for their opponents,” Sessions said. “The prosecution sought to protect the integrity of the ballot, not to block voting. It was a voting rights case.”
The comments provide a preview of how Attorney General Sessions and his Justice Department would handle voting rights. Under the Obama administration, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and its Voting Section enforced the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and took action to protect the right to vote for all eligible Americans. Under Sessions, it’s likely that the department will shift its focus to prosecuting “voter fraud,” an exceedingly rare occurrence. The charge is often employed by GOP lawmakers in order to suppress minority and low-income voters.
Although Sessions voted a decade ago to renew the VRA when it was up for reauthorization in Congress, that vote came at a time when supporting voting rights was not a controversial, partisan issue. Since then, he has called the VRA “a piece of intrusive legislation,” and his record in Alabama paints a picture of how he will likely handle voting issues as attorney general.
The three civil rights activists that Sessions prosecuted were acquitted by a jury, but not before the Alabama prosecutor caused them and their families significant distress. Evelyn Turner, one of the people prosecuted, told the New York Times recently that because of Sessions, she faced decades in prison.
“It was hell,” she said. “We had always helped people with voting, for ages, and they trusted us. Why would you mess with someone’s ballot, if you knew it wasn’t what they wanted? We weren’t fools.”
It wasn’t the last time Sessions would attempt to suppress black voters. As Alabama attorney general, he opposed two lawsuits that both attempted to use the VRA to improve the racial makeup of judges in Alabama. Alabama is almost one-third black, but only three African American judges have ever sat on a federal bench in the state.
And before the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the VRA with 2013’s Shelby v. Holder decision, removing Section 5’s requirement that certain states and localities pre-clear changes to voting law with the DOJ, Sessions argued in 2006 that the provision was unnecessary. He also heralded the decision, claiming that it would help people in his state cast ballots.
Since that Supreme Court decision, dozens of states have passed restrictive voting laws. The efforts were successful in suppressing voters in both the 2014 midterm and the 2016 presidential elections.
“As bad as it was after Shelby and in this election, at least we had a Civil Rights Division which took these concerns somewhat seriously,” Scott Simpson, the director of media and campaigns for the The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told Mother Jones. “And we don’t know what we’re going to get under Sessions. But we can look at his record, and his record bodes very poorly for the future of voting rights in this country.”
Common Cause, a nonprofit voting rights organization, has come out strongly against Sessions’ confirmation, marking one of the few times the group has spoken out against a presidential appointee.
“His past statements and actions indicate that if confirmed as attorney general he would fail to fully uphold the Voting Rights Act as it stands today,” said Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn.
When Sessions was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to a federal judgeship in 1986, his record on voting rights was one of the major reasons why the Senate voted against his appointment.
Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this article quoted Sessions as saying “black voting” when he said “block voting.”