Former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander told a crowd of people at a progressive event in Parkville Saturday that they can’t just rely on the courts to protect voting rights under President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Kander, a Democrat, said that with Trump appointing judges and Sessions running the U.S. Department of Justice, voting rights cases will become tougher to win. Legal challenges have to be paired with political activism.
“I believe there should be political consequences for politicians who commit voter suppression,” Kander said. “I believe that if you make it harder to vote, then we should make it harder for you to get reelected.”
Kander, who started a political action committee this year called Let America Vote, spoke at a “voting rights festival” hosted at English Landing Park by Northland Progress. The festival is part of the group’s “In for 10” campaign, in which volunteers pledge to help at least 10 Missouri citizens register to vote.
The event featured volunteer sign-ups, food trucks and speeches by Democratic politicians interspersed with sets by local musicians.
Northland Progress founder and president Blake Green said it was a non-partisan event and he invited Republican politicians as well, but none accepted. He declined to name the Republican invitees.
A few hundred people gathered to watch Kander’s speech, which kicked off the event.
Kander levied criticism at Trump and Sessions, a former Republican senator from Alabama. Kander said that under Sessions’ leadership the federal agency tasked with protecting civil rights had changed dramatically.
“The Department of Justice is switching sides in all the legal cases about voting rights,” Kander said. “All of a sudden the Department of Justice is on the side of folks trying to make it harder to vote. They’re against civil rights.”
The department has changed its position on two high-profile voting rights cases since Trump took over for Democratic President Barack Obama. In February, the department dropped an Obama-era contention that Texas legislators had passed a voter-identification law with the intent to discriminate against people of color.
The department’s lawyers said that rather than litigate the intent of the law, they wanted to allow the legislators a chance to evaluate its effect and change it.
Earlier this month the department reversed its position in a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging an Ohio law that automatically purges citizens from the voter registration rolls if they don’t vote for six years and don’t respond to a mailing asking them to confirm their registration.
Under Obama the department had challenged such purges. But the department’s solicitor general said Ohio’s law was valid in a brief filed Aug. 7.
The Department of Justice did not respond Saturday to a request for comment.
Advocates of voter identification laws say they’re intended to stop voter fraud.
But Kander said Americans are statistically more likely to be struck by lightning than try to commit the sort of in-person voter impersonation that such laws prevent.
Kander said the true intent of the voting restrictions is to suppress turnout of groups that traditionally vote Democrat. He criticized Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an architect of such laws in several states, for spearheading a system that caused Kansas to throw out more votes than all but six states during the 2016 election.
Kobach, a Republican running for Kansas governor, did not respond to a phone message left Saturday afternoon.
Kander, who lost a race for U.S. Senate in November against Republican incumbent Roy Blunt, declined to say whether he would run for office again.