By Frank Fang and Eva Fu
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) is demanding answers from the Department of Justice (DOJ) after the agency refused to release all documents regarding how it intended to implement a 2021 executive order on expanding voter access. Republicans have opposed this order as an unlawful exercise of federal power over elections.
In March last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order (EO 14019) directing the head of every federal agency, including the DOJ, to come up with a strategic plan on how to “promote voter registration and voter participation.” Their plans should be submitted to Susan Rice, the president’s domestic policy advisor.
The executive order also mandates these agencies work with “approved” third-party organizations to provide voter registration services on federal agency premises.
Since then, Republican lawmakers have questioned whether the administration has constitutional and statutory authority to enact such an order. Meanwhile, government watchdogs, including Florida-based public policy think tank the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), have filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with federal agencies seeking documents relating to Biden’s order.
On Oct. 18, Norman, who sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, demanding to know why the DOJ has failed to properly respond to FGA’s FOIA request, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Epoch Times before its public release.
“The U.S. Constitution makes it clear that states must manage their own elections, without meddling by the federal government,” Norman told The Epoch Times in an email.
“We’re looking at a Department of Justice that appears to be overstepping that Constitutional boundary at the direction of President Biden, and then deliberately defying court orders. Add that to the list of problems we have with the DOJ,” he added, referring to a July district court ruling that ordered the DOJ to produce the documents under the FOIA request.
The federal government, Norman said, should “keep their hands out of our election process” and modify the voting policies so that they are “easier for citizens to vote, and harder to cheat.”
“The DOJ’s reputation with public trust is already minimal at best. What could the DOJ have to gain from hiding their plan to promote voter participation from the public?” Norman said.
Other signatories to the letter include Reps. Randy Weber (R-Texas), Mary Miller (R-Ill.), Fred Keller (R-Pa.), Chip Roy (R-Texas), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), and Ben Cline (R-Va.).
In his letter, Norman argued that Biden should not have issued such an order in the first place.
“The President has no legal basis to order all federal agencies to engage in voter registration, nor does he have the authority to order any federal agency to engage in efforts to promote voter participation,” the letter stated. “Yet, that is precisely what he is seeking to do through this EO.”
The U.S. Constitution doesn’t grant the president authority to “transform all federal executive agencies led by his political appointees, including DOJ, into get-out-the-vote machines for the left, paid for by federal taxpayers,” according to the letter.
Norman warned that federal officials following Biden’s order run the risk of violating the Hatch Act, which bans federal government officials from taking part in certain political activities.
In carrying out the order, the DOJ could also violate the Antideficiency Act, the letter says, which prohibits federal agencies from “spending funds Congress has not authorized or accepting volunteer services from ‘approved’ third-party organizations as EO 14019 directs.”
The FGA came to a similar legal conclusion. Aside from referencing the two U.S. laws, the group argued that Biden’s order “oversteps the limited federal agency involvement in voter registration allowed under the National Voter Registration Act.” As a result, the FGA concluded that the executive order “is illegal, unethical, and unconstitutional.”
Additionally, the FGA argued that the Biden administration is using the executive order to benefit Democratic candidates.
“With the lack of oversight and transparency, there is a genuine concern that this effort will primarily target Democrat strongholds to help turn out voters that the Biden administration believes are more likely to vote Democrat,” the FGA wrote in a May report.
The FGA filed its FOIA request with the DOJ on July 30, 2021. After the DOJ failed to turn over a single document for over 200 days, the group filed a lawsuit against the department in April. A federal district court ruled in favor of the FGA in July, ordering the DOJ to disclose all requested documents under the FOIA before the Nov. 8 midterm elections.
On Sept. 8, the FGA said it had received 135 pages of heavily-redacted documents from the DOJ. Missing from the batch was the agency’s 15-page strategic plan that it created to implement Biden’s executive order.
In its letter (pdf) to the FGA, the DOJ cited “the deliberative process and presidential communications privileges” as the reason for withholding the strategic plan.
Norman rejected the DOJ’s claim, saying the privileges cited should not “apply to this finished, post-decisional document.”
“Attempting to conceal this plan from the public is not only contrary to federal law, but is deeply concerning and damaging to the public’s already dwindling confidence in your department,” Norman said in the Oct. 18 letter.
The congressman asked the DOJ to disclose all documents by Oct. 30 given that the plan is already complete. It “would be a solid first step” for the DOJ to regain the trust of the American people, he wrote.
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