Who watches the poll watch­ers?

Our view: With fewer mon­i­tors, polling places could be civil rights bat­tle­grounds

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

The elec­tion is four weeks from Tues­day , and eas­ily lost in the sea­sonal out­pour­ing of can­di­date speeches and de­bates, polls and fact-check­ing is this sad re­al­ity: The U.S. has wit­nessed the great­est roll­back in vot­ing rights since the Jim Crow era in re­cent years, yet fed­eral author­i­ties will have fewer re­sources to deal with polling place dis­putes than at any time over the last half-cen­tury.

To sug­gest that is a trou­bling cir­cum­stance is a se­ri­ous un­der­state­ment. For a half-decade or more, Repub­li­can­con­trolled states from Ge­or­gia to Alaska have been pil­ing up rules that ef­fec­tively make it more dif­fi­cult for mi­nori­ties and the poor to cast a bal­lot, chiefly through strict voter ID laws and reg­is­tra­tion re­quire­ments. This year, there are 14 states us­ing more re­stric­tive vot­ing laws for the first time (and there would be more if fed­eral courts hadn’t re­cently tossed out sev­eral of these dis­crim­i­na­tory laws as un­con­sti­tu­tional).

Many of these states are tak­ing ad­van­tage of the 5-4 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court rul­ing in 2013 that re­duced elec­tion over­sight un­der the 1965 Vot­ing Rights Act. And here’s where the other shoe drops: As a re­sult of that de­ci­sion, the Jus­tice De­part­ment does not have au­thor­ity to staff these at-risk polling places with trained ob­servers who can spot, and po­ten­tially in­ter­vene against, dis­crim­i­na­tory be­hav­ior.

The GOP-con­trolled Congress could, of course, pass a law au­tho­riz­ing such ob­servers, but the chances of that are some­where be­tween zero and none. In­stead, what’s more likely to hap­pen is that the Jus­tice De­part­ment will dis­patch ob­servers to a hand­ful of states now au­tho­rized (pri­mar­ily by ju­di­cial order) in­stead of the 23 that were staffed in 2012. Author­i­ties are free to send peo­ple to mon­i­tor elec­tion re­sults, but they will have no spe­cial ac­cess to the in­side of polling places where they might ac­tu­ally wit­ness civil rights vi­o­la­tions.

What makes this sit­u­a­tion par­tic­u­larly wor­ri­some is that Don­ald Trump has al­ready called on his sup­port­ers to act as poll watch­ers. Par­tic­u­larly in the Deep South, poll watch­ers have of­ten amounted to vol­un­teers who gather around polling places in num­bers to ag­gres­sively in­tim­i­date poor and mi­nor­ity vot­ers. Ob­serv­ing is one thing, ha­rass­ment is an­other — and states are of­ten ill-pre­pared to po­lice the prac­tice them­selves.

Of course, Trump sup­port­ers will counter that they are there to guard against voter fraud, but as study af­ter study has doc­u­mented, the no­tion that prospec­tive vot­ers will mis­rep­re­sent them­selves and cast a bal­lot as some­one they are not is mi­nus­cule at most. Strict photo ID laws serve pri­mar­ily to dis­cour­age vot­ing, not to pro­tect its in­tegrity.

With no need for fed­eral pre-clear­ance of elec­tion laws man­dated by the Civil Rights Act, at least nine states have pro­duced rules likely to de­crease voter par­tic­i­pa­tion. Even if Hil­lary Clin­ton de­feats Don­ald Trump on Nov. 8, the like­li­hood of a dis­puted down-bal­lot elec­tion re­sult now ap­pears high.

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