What does the civil rights statute in Trump's potential Jan. 6 indictment letter mean?
The law addresses any conspiracy to interfere with Constitutional rights.
Former President Donald Trump could be indicted in connection with a civil rights statute for his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, one that has been used before to safeguard against potential election interference.
A July 16 target letter from special counsel Jack Smith's team alerted Trump that he is a target of the special counsel's investigation into efforts to interfere with the 2020 presidential election results, sources familiar with the matter told ABC News.
Sources say the letter mentioned three federal statutes: conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud the United States, deprivation of rights under a civil rights statute, and tampering with a witness, victim or an informant.
The civil rights statute, Section 241 of Title 18 in the U.S. Code, has been used to prosecute several instances of voter interference.
The civil rights statute and what it means
Section 241 makes it "unlawful for two or more persons to agree to injure, threaten, or intimidate a person in the United States in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States or because of his or her having exercised such a right," the Department of Justice's website reads.
The statute can be applied to forms of voter intimidation if there is "a conspiracy to prevent persons whom the subjects knew were qualified voters from entering or getting to the polls to vote in an election when a federal candidate is on the ballot" or conspires "to misuse state authority to prevent qualified voters from voting for any candidate in any election," the DOJ states in a Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses report.
This would be a felony violation, "even if the underlying conduct would not, on its own, establish a felony violation of another criminal civil rights statute," according to the DOJ website.
Trump is facing several investigations for his actions during and following the 2020 presidential election, placing scrutiny on his efforts in Georgia, where he asked the Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" the exact number of votes Trump would need to beat now-President Joe Biden, as well as alleged attempts to invalidate the election results in Michigan.
The role of the civil rights statute throughout history
According to the Department of Justice, the Section 241 statute hails from the Enforcement Acts in the late 1800s that were later repealed, which aimed to protect election integrity for the general public, but also specifically for marginalized groups.
The statute was notably used following the Civil War and the Reconstruction era to prosecute white supremacists groups such as the Ku Klux Klan for targeting Black Americans and other marginalized groups for voting or exercising their Constitutional rights.
Several of the regions the Trump campaign challenged following the presidential election -- including Georgia's Chatham County, Wayne County in Michigan, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania -- are home to large Black or Latino populations, which voted largely for Biden.
"While a Section 241 claim can be raised with any deprivation of a federal right, this apparent bid to disenfranchise communities of color calls to mind the reasons the law was passed to begin with," Brennan Center for Justice voting rights experts say in an essay about Trump's potential indictment.
However, the statute has been used to prosecute cases of election interference among the general population. The Brennan Center notes several instances, including the 2014 conviction of former Martin, Kentucky, Mayor Ruth Thomasine Robinson "for bribing and coercing voters to ensure her reelection" in 2012.
Evidence presented at trial showed that Thomasine Robinson and her co-conspirators "intimidated poor and disabled citizens in order to gain their votes during the 2012 general election in Martin," according to a release about the conviction issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Kentucky. It also found that conspirators directed residents to sign completed absentee ballots that were already pre-marked with "the conspirators' choice of candidates," and that "Voters who did not comply faced eviction or the loss of priority for public housing."
Additionally, in March of this year, a social media influencer named Douglass Mackey was convicted of conspiring during the 2016 election with other influential Twitter users "to disseminate fraudulent messages that encouraged supporters of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to 'vote' via text message or social media" which is not a valid method of voting. Mackey was convicted under the statute.
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