More than 500 U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) civil rights personnel will monitor polls in 67 jurisdictions across 28 states during the first presidential election since the U.S. Supreme Court did away with key sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
DOJ’s Monday announcement came a day before voters will cast their ballots without protections designed to stop states from passing legislation preventing Black voters from accessing the ballot box. Several states rushed to enact discriminatory voter ID laws within hours of the 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, though subsequent legal challenges prevented North Carolina and Texas from enforcing their restrictions ahead of Election Day 2016.
Lawsuits, ranging from allegations of voter intimidation to the improper targeting of Black neighborhoods for polling place closures, remain pending in the courts.
The DOJ will have about 300 fewer people covering a wider breadth of territory—16 more jurisdictions in five more states—than it deployed in the 2012 presidential election. Pre-Shelby, the Justice Department deployed more than 780 federal observers and personnel to 51 jurisdictions in 23 states to oversee Election Day 2012, according to a press release.
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Julie Fernandes, advocacy director for voting rights and democracy at the Open Society Policy Center, said the DOJ had to make do without the resources that went along with the now largely defunct federal observer program.
Fernandes, in a phone interview, credited the DOJ with stepping up recruitment of personnel from within the agency to monitor the polls and to “try to kind of create a substitute program.”
DOJ monitors don’t have the same powers that federal observers once held. NPR this month reported that the specially trained observers of previous elections had “far more authority,” including “a statutory right to be inside polling places.”
The New York Times followed suit with a report that the DOJ will deploy observers inside polling places in just four states—including only one state in the South. Post-Shelby, “these observers can only be sent to jurisdictions that are subject to a pertinent court order; only five jurisdictions in the country are currently under such an order,” the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, wrote in a September blog post.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Rewire that she believes the DOJ will provide “a watchful set of eyes and ears on Election Day,” even though more needs to be done.
“This effort does not serve as a substitute for the full and robust protections that have long been provided by the federal observer program,” Clarke said in a phone interview. “We continue to see evidence of the need for federal observers in many parts of the country, particularly in the South.”
DOJ monitors are likely to witness escalating rancor at the polls this year.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign is behind self-described “major voter suppression operations” against Black people and young women. Trump continues to use his platform to claim that the presidential election is “rigged” against him, perpetuating the myth of voter fraud and riling up white nationalists who plan to monitor urban polling areas in an attempt to thwart Black voters.
Fernandes said that under different circumstances, the racially charged rhetoric during the 2016 presidential election would have led the DOJ to deploy a record number of federal observers.
“If Shelby County v. Holder had not happened, and the Justice Department still had [its] observer authority, my bet is that program would have hit records this year,” Fernandes said.