It wasn’t terribly big news on March 7, 2021. President Joe Biden, then less than two months in office, signed an executive order “promoting voting rights,” in the words of the Washington Post, to “make voting easier,” in the words of the New York Times. Both papers played the story as a modest Democratic measure to push back against Republican efforts to “roll back voting access,” as the Washington Post put it, and to counter former President Donald Trump’s “months-long assault on the voting process,” as the New York Times said.
Executive Order 14019 directed what is known as an “all of government” initiative, meaning Biden ordered all federal agencies to be involved, to increase voter registration among groups that have historically been part of the Democrat coalition. “Black voters and other voters of color have faced discriminatory policies and other obstacles that disproportionately affect their communities,” the order said. “These voters remain more likely to face long lines at the polls and are disproportionately burdened by voter identification laws and limited opportunities to vote by mail.”
It was standard Democrat boilerplate — and mostly false, at that. Democrats have long pushed the “voter suppression” story even as data showed it was a myth. But March 2021 was the month in which the Georgia legislature, controlled by Republicans, was debating a new voting law, and Biden and other Democrats were making hysterical, over-the-top pronouncements about “Jim Crow 2.0.” Maybe they believed it. Maybe they didn’t. The goal was to pass two bills that were at the top of the Democrat agenda in Washington: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Together the bills, if passed and signed into law, would nationalize elections and remake voting laws on terms favorable to the Democrat Party. But Democrats, barely in control of the Senate, could not pass such a baldly partisan bill without some Republican support — and there was none of that.
The “Executive Order on Promoting Access to Voting” reads like a Democrat Party wish-list of “reforms” that enshrines many of the practices that were adopted on a temporary basis during the pandemic-affected 2020 election. Its provisions include:
- using federal agencies to promote voter registration;
- using federal agencies to inform Americans about voting;
- linking federal agency websites to state voter registration websites;
- providing voter registration and vote-by-mail applications;
- using “approved, nonpartisan third-party organizations” to register voters at federal agencies;
- using identification documents issued by the agency to help people register to vote;
- providing more multilingual services to potential voters;
- giving public employees “time off to vote in Federal, State, local, Tribal, and territorial elections”; and
- promoting voter registration for federal prisoners.
One provision states: “It is the responsibility of the Federal Government to expand access to, and education about, voter registration and election information, and to combat misinformation, in order to enable all eligible Americans to participate in our democracy.”
Under the U.S. Constitution, elections are largely administered by the states. However, critics of Biden’s executive order noted that it amounts to an attempt to federalize elections, and to do so without authority from Congress, irregardless of the Constitution.
On July 30, 2021, a conservative but nonpartisan think tank called the Foundation for Government Accountability sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Justice Department asking for documents showing how the department is complying with Biden’s order. The foundation was particularly interested in the specific plan the department came up with — what was the DOJ actually going to do to implement the president’s wishes? “Please provide your agency’s strategic plan developed pursuant to President Biden Executive Order 14019 … outlining ways you identified for your agency to promote voter registration and voter participation,” the request said.
Most importantly, the Justice Department refused to turn over its strategic plan. None of it. This is what the chief of the Freedom of Information branch of the Civil Rights Division told the foundation:
After review of the Civil Rights Division documents responsive to your request, the Division has identified (15) pages of material representing the STRATEGIC PLAN for the Implementation of Executive Order 14019, Promoting Access to Voting. I have determined that these materials are to be withheld in full pursuant to Exemption 5 of the Freedom of Information Act, 551(b)(5), which pertains to certain inter- and intra-agency records protected by civil discovery privileges, in this instance the deliberative process and presidential communications privileges.
To withhold the plan, the Justice Department relied on what has long been called the most abused exemption — Exemption 5, also known as (b)(5) — of the Freedom of Information Act. “This incredibly large cutout is often called the ‘withhold it because you want to’ exemption,” wrote journalist and FOIA advocate Nate Jones in 2014. “According to stats compiled by the Associated Press, (b)(5) use is at an all-time high.” Even though later reform reduced its use a little, Exemption 5 is still an indispensable tool for administrations seeking to hide what they are doing.
As Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist noted in June, Biden was elected in 2020 after Democrats and their donors, such as billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, funded and commandeered local election administration in key counties in crucial swing states.
Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which the DOJ refused the request to produce documents to produce until compelled to do so by a federal court last Thursday, two months before the 2002 midterm elections. While it did provide a few documents, the DOJ used a loophole in the FOIA legislation to withhold the “strategic plan” for Executive Order 14019.
As Byron York of the Washington Examiner notes:
So the strategic plan, the document that would give the world some information on what the administration is doing to enact Biden’s order, remains a secret. But that’s not all. The Justice Department is withholding lots of other information, as well.
Remember that the main concern of the Foundation for Government Accountability is that the Biden Administration is using the power of the federal government for partisan political purposes to influence elections. There are also fears that the administration might be taking on a federal role in elections that the Constitution leaves to the states. “The American people deserve to know if the Biden administration’s unprecedented action is fair and non-partisan, or if it is designed to help one political party over the other,” Tarren Bragdon, head of the foundation, said in a statement. “Why are they ignoring public record requests for strategic plans on federal voter registration efforts? Why are they treating these documents like they are classified information dealing with nuclear weapons? Midterms are approaching, and the DOJ’s failure to disclose information raises troubling issues. They need to reveal these public documents to keep our elections fair.”
One troubling clue did make it past Justice Department censors. On July 12, 2021, the Justice Department held a “listening session” with outside activists working on voting rights. The group included dozens of people, all of them from left-leaning groups. There were 10 from the American Civil Liberties Union, five from the Campaign Legal Center, three from Demos, three from the Southern Poverty Law Center, five from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, two from Black Lives Matter, and many others. The list would not reassure anyone hoping that the Justice Department is working in a scrupulously nonpartisan way. But of course, we don’t really know what the department is doing because the administration is keeping it a secret.
While the DOJ hides information about how the federal government is intervening in the upcoming election, guaranteeing that the results will be held in suspicion, Biden, his party, and their allies in the media are claiming that the midterm election is about defending “democracy” from its opponents, and liken those who doubt election results to traitors and terrorists. ✪