Ex-vot­ing chief: No ‘race-neu­tral’ pol­icy

Pros­e­cu­tion of mi­nori­ties in vot­ing cases is dis­cour­aged, says ex-Jus­tice of­fi­cial.

Los Angeles Times - - The Nation - Jor­dan St­ef­fen re­port­ing from washington xcxjst­ef­fen@tribune.com

A for­mer Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial on Fri­day ac­cused his su­pe­ri­ors of dis­cour­ag­ing “race-neu­tral” vot­ing en­force­ment and gut­ting a con­tro­ver­sial 2008 voter in­tim­i­da­tion case in which sus­pects were part of an African Amer­i­can mil­i­tant group ac­cused of vi­o­lat­ing the rights of white vot­ers.

Over the ob­jec­tions of Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials, for­mer Vot­ing Chief Christo­pher Coates tes­ti­fied be­fore the U.S. Civil Rights Com­mis­sion. Coates said that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion dis­cour­aged pur­su­ing mi­nor­ity per­pe­tra­tors and in­stead fo­cused on pros­e­cut­ing white vot­ers ac­cused of racially mo­ti­vated acts.

“The elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Obama brought to po­si­tions of in­flu­ence and power within the [Civil Rights Di­vi­sion] many of the very peo­ple who had demon­strated hos­til­ity to the con­cept of equal en­force­ment of the [Vot­ing Rights Act],” Coates said. Coates re­cently trans­ferred to a po­si­tion in the U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice in South Carolina.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment de­nies Coates’ ac­cu­sa­tions.

“The depart­ment makes en­force­ment de­ci­sions based on the mer­its — not the race, gen­der or eth­nic­ity of any party in­volved,” Tracy Sch­maler, a Jus­tice Depart­ment spokesper­son, said in a state­ment. “We are com­mit­ted to com­pre­hen­sive and vig­or­ous en­force­ment of the fed­eral laws that pro­hibit voter in­tim­i­da­tion.”

The hear­ing at the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Civil Rights Com­mis­sion fo­cused on whether ten­sions within the Jus­tice Depart­ment caused the mis­han­dling of a law­suit against the New Black Pan­ther Party, a small black su­prem­a­cist group.

The suit hinged on two mem­bers of the group who dressed in mil­i­tary at­tire and stood out­side a polling place in Philadel­phia on Elec­tion Day 2008. One man was car­ry­ing a night­stick.

The depart­ment filed the civil suit dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, ac­cus­ing the men of at­tempt­ing to in­tim­i­date white vot­ers — even though the polling place was in a pri­mar­ily African Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hood.

Un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, the depart­ment dropped some of the pro­ceed­ings against the men and the New Black Pan­ther Party.

Be­fore a 2005 case in Mis­sis­sippi, the depart­ment had never filed a case in which white vot­ers were tar­geted by mi­nor­ity groups, Coates told the com­mis­sion.

Coates said depart­ment of­fi­cials told him that many civil rights groups were op­posed to race-neu­tral en­force­ment. Coates said the groups were act­ing as “spe­cial-in­ter­est lob­bies for racial and eth­nic mi­nori­ties.”

Coates was pro­moted to vot­ing chief dur­ing the end of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. He said he felt “closely su­per­vised” by his su­pe­ri­ors af­ter the be­gin­ning of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

While con­duct­ing in­ter­views with ap­pli­cants, when Coates would ask if they felt com­fort­able pros­e­cut­ing mem­bers of a mi­nor­ity for racially mo­ti­vated acts, all ap­pli­cants said yes.

In 2009, he said, he was in­structed to stop ask­ing the ques­tion.

“What I am point­ing out is that I be­lieve that some mi­nori­ties are just as likely to re­sort to law­less­ness in the vot­ing area as are some whites,” Coates said.

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