Fewer elec­tion ob­servers from the Jus­tice Dept. at the polls

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Eric Tucker

WASHINGTON >> Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials are warn­ing that they’ll be dis­patch­ing fewer trained elec­tion ob­servers as a re­sult of a Supreme Court opin­ion that gut­ted a key pro­vi­sion of the Vot­ing Rights Act.

The re­duc­tion is likely to di­min­ish the depart­ment’s abil­ity to de­tect voter in­tim­i­da­tion and other po­ten­tial prob­lems at the polls. It comes as more than a dozen states have adopted new vot­ing and regis­tra­tion rules, and as Repub­li­can can­di­date Don­ald Trump warns with­out ev­i­dence that the Nov. 8 elec­tion will be rigged and ex­horts his fol­low­ers to be vig­i­lant against un­spec­i­fied fraud.

“It’s cause for con­cern,” said Dale Ho, direc­tor of the ACLU’s Vot­ing Rights Project. “It’s hard to know ahead of time how sig­nif­i­cant a prob­lem it’s go­ing to be.”

Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials said they still will dis­patch hun­dreds of staffers to the polls and ex­pect to have them in at least as many states as dur­ing the 2012 elec­tion, when they sent more than 780 ob­servers and depart­ment per­son­nel to 23 states.

“We have been do­ing ev­ery­thing we can through our mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram to be able to be as ef­fec­tive as we can be” in en­sur­ing fair elec­tions, said Vanita Gupta, head of the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s Civil Rights Division. She said vot­ers won’t de­tect any dif­fer­ence in the fed­eral pres­ence this year from the 2012 elec­tion.

But, Gupta added, there’s no way to “sugar coat” the im­pact of the court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder opin­ion, which in­val­i­dated a cor­ner­stone of the 1965 vot­ing law.

In a video re­leased Wed­nes­day, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Loretta Lynch said that though the court’s de­ci­sion had reined in the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s power, the gov­ern­ment would work to “en­sure that ev­ery voter can cast his or her bal­lot free of un­law­ful in­tim­i­da­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion, or ob­struc­tion.”

The ex­act num­ber of per­son­nel will not be re­vealed un­til closer to Elec­tion Day.

Most of the staffers will be so-called elec­tion mon­i­tors, who have less author­ity than fed­er­ally trained elec­tion ob­servers and rely on the co­op­er­a­tion of lo­cal of­fi­cials to do their jobs. Fed­eral ob­servers en­joy un­fet­tered ac­cess in­side polling places on Elec­tion Day and can­not be re­moved. Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials say they’ve been work­ing with lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials to se­cure co­op­er­a­tion for their mon­i­tors.

The fed­eral ob­server pro­gram has pro­vided an im­por­tant safe­guard dur­ing pre­vi­ous elec­tions, es­pe­cially in places that tried to sup­press the votes of blacks, Lati­nos and other mi­nori­ties, said Kris­ten Clarke, pres­i­dent of the Lawyers’ Com­mit­tee for Civil Rights Un­der Law.

In past elec­tions, for ex­am­ple, ob­servers were sent to Greens­boro, Alabama, af­ter white elec­tion of­fi­cials tried to pre­vent black vot­ers from en­ter­ing polling places and to Pike County, Ge­or­gia, af­ter an af­ter-hours voter regis­tra­tion ses­sion was open to whites only, the Jus­tice Depart­ment says.

Ob­servers, and mon­i­tors too, have long been re­lied upon to defuse ten­sions, de­ter in­tim­i­da­tion and en­cour­age faith in the fair­ness of the elec­toral process.

“They have the im­pri­matur of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment be­hind them that is giv­ing them the rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to be in polling places,” said Ni­cole Austin-Hillery, direc­tor and coun­sel of the Washington, D.C., of­fice of the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice.

This year, as in past elec­tions, the hun­dreds of mon­i­tors on the ground will re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing sure vot­ers aren’t treated dif­fer­ently be­cause of race or gen­der, that dis­abled vot­ers are be­ing ac­com­mo­dated and that vot­ers who need them have bilin­gual elec­tion ma­te­ri­als, Lynch said in her video mes­sage.

Still, this pres­i­den­tial elec­tion will be the first since the land­mark Shelby County opin­ion. That rul­ing threw out a re­quire­ment that ju­ris­dic­tions with a his­tory of vot­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion, mostly in South­ern states, seek ap­proval from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment be­fore chang­ing the way they hold elec­tions.

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