WASHINGTON — The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division is reversing course and has begun taking steps to enforce a 1993 law that's intended to make it easier for poor minorities to register to vote.
The division, which has come under attack for allegedly pursuing policies aimed at suppressing the votes of Democratic-leaning minorities, has demanded that 18 states provide evidence that they're complying with the National Voter Registration Act.
If it is fully pursued, this new action will represent the first significant return to traditional enforcement of voting-rights laws since a scandal erupted earlier this year over the alleged politicization of the Justice Department.
McClatchy Newspapers disclosed last spring that the Civil Rights Division had failed to enforce a variety of voting-rights laws intended to protect the ability of minorities, especially African-Americans, to vote. The controversy led to the resignations of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and seven other officials, including Bradley Schlozman, the former acting civil rights chief.
Now attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey, whose confirmation was debated by the Senate Thursday night, has pledged to insulate the agency's law enforcement decisions from partisan politics.
Some election watchdog groups are skeptical, saying that the enforcement push might be a cosmetic response to widespread criticism and congressional scrutiny of the division.
Justice Department spokeswoman Jodi Bobb dismissed as ``false critics charges that the department has been less than aggressive in protecting African-American voting rights and suggestions that Voting Rights Chief John Tanner sent the recent letters to states in an attempt to save his job.
``We have been actively investigating potential cases to protect African American voters all along and we have been in regular contact with African-American organizations, she said, citing successful suits in Ohio and Texas and objections to discriminatory election laws in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.
In August, as he was facing demands from the House Judiciary Committee to testify about his alleged role in the voting-rights scandal, Tanner sent letters asking 18 states to spell out their compliance with a provision in the 1993 law that requires all public-assistance agencies to offer voter registration services.
The states receiving the letters include three that frequently are battlegrounds in presidential and Senate races — Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The others are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New York, South Carolina, Utah and Vermont.
Tanner's letters are the first substantial Bush administration effort to enforce the 1993 law, better known as the "Motor Voter" law, whose goal largely is to increase registration of lower-income and disabled people, many of them minorities.
The letters said that the targeted states were among the 10 with the lowest percentage of registration applications received from offices providing public assistance, reported no applications from those offices, or didn't designate enough agencies as voter registration sites. The letters asked the states to identify all agencies offering registration forms.
In 2004, when President Bush was up for re-election, the section took the opposite stance. Joseph Rich, the voting rights chief at the time, said that voter-registration groups came to the department that year with evidence of widespread noncompliance. But, Rich said, the division's voting rights counsel, Hans von Spakovsky, whom he's described as the "de facto voting rights chief," told him the section wasn't interested in stepping up enforcement.
From 1995 to 1996, the first two years the Motor Voter law was in effect, 2.6 million people registered to vote at public-assistance agencies, but that number steadily declined to about 1 million in the ensuing years.
Michael Slater, the deputy director of Project Vote, a voter registration group, said his group is "pleased that the department is starting to build a track record in support of their frequent claim that they enforce the law evenhandedly."
On Oct. 29, the day before Tanner was to testify before a judiciary subcommittee, he sent another enforcement letter, this one to Florida.
The letter asked state Attorney General Bill McCollum and the Florida secretary of state to provide information about several provisions in the 42-page law. It focused on an ID provision, a provision that imposes fines on voter registration workers who don't turn in completed applications within 10 days, and a provision that reduces to 48 hours the time a challenged voter has to produce proof of his eligibility for his vote to count.
The department also raised a more controversial issue, seeking information about "verification of voter registration applications." In 2005, Florida adopted a law that disqualified new registrants if their Social Security numbers on their applications didn't match those in a Social Security database.
A federal judge struck down a similar law in Washington state.
Under the federal Voting Rights Act, either the department or a federal court panel must approve election laws that affect all or parts of Florida and 15 other states to ensure that they don't impede on minority voting rights.
David Becker, a senior counsel for the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way who previously worked in the Voting Rights Section, said that Tanner refused to look at additional data submitted by the state of Georgia before approving its controversial photo ID law in 2005.
"Maybe this is a sign of a change," Becker said. "Maybe this is just an attempt to shift the scrutiny aside while they continue the same suppressive policy they've been pursuing for the last several years."