Who watches the poll watchers?
Our view: With fewer monitors, polling places could be civil rights battlegrounds
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.