Despite Growing Concerns of Voter Suppression, Justice Department Deploys Fewer Election Monitors Than in 2012
- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it would deploy 500 people to 28 states to monitor polling stations as the nation votes on Tuesday. This is down from 800 election monitors in 2012, despite growing fears of election-day violence spurred by the highly contentious presidential race.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly urged his supporters to monitor polling stations themselves, raising the specter of violence at poll stations in an election already fraught with partisan political tensions.
“We better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged … people are going to walk in and they’re going to vote 10 times, maybe, who knows?” he told a crowd in Ohio in August. To probably no one’s surprise, PolitiFact rated Trump’s statements a “pants on fire”-level lie.
Democrats have lost lawsuits filed in Ohio (after an appeal struck down an initial injunction against Trump), Nevada, and Arizona which all alleged Republican voter intimidation. “Intimidating voters is illegal, and the campaign does not remotely condone such conduct,” Trump campaign lawyer Chad A. Readler said in a legal filing in Ohio last week, according to CNN. (One campaign official did tell Bloomberg, however, it has “voter suppression operations” in the works.) Other cases are being heard in Nevada and Pennsylvania on Monday.
The DOJ election monitors will be on the lookout for discrimination toward or rights violations of voters. Their numbers — and authority — have been curtailed from the last presidential race due to the landmark Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that nixed a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That law allowed for federal election observers, especially in states that had a history of trying to disenfranchise minority voters.
Observers, unlike monitors, were trained federal employees who could go inside polling booths, verify voting numbers, and watch the process from inside the polling stations. Monitors, on the other hand, will be heavily reliant on local officials’ cooperation.
“We can’t deny the costs of Shelby County,” Vanita Gupta, assistant attorney general for civil rights told NPR last month. But she hoped that the “sheer presence” of monitors would “give voters the confidence that they need to feel like the process is fair.”
“The department is deeply committed to the fair and unbiased application of our voting rights laws and we will work tirelessly to ensure that every eligible person that wants to do so is able to cast a ballot,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.
Despite the Justice Department’s assurances (and even a Kenyan tech start-up volunteering to help), many civil rights organizations are voicing concerns over voter suppression.
“For the first time in more than 50 years, Latino voters will cast ballots in a presidential election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act,” said Arturo Vargas, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund executive director.
Concerns abound. In North Carolina, a federal judge ruled on Nov. 4 that three counties had illegally stricken thousands of voters from the registration rolls, and ordered them restored. Confusion over a controversial new voter ID law in Texas caused some voters to be turned away from early voting, according to KVUE, a local ABC affiliate. And Nevada GOP Chairman Michael McDonald criticized polling locations in his battleground state for staying open late “so a certain group could vote.”
“The kinds of threats we have heard in recent months — ID checks, voter intimidation, misinformation campaigns — harken back to the first half of the 20th century,” said NAACP President and CEO Cornell W. Brooks.
“And although the current iteration of the Voting Rights Act is not nearly as powerful as it was, make no mistake: These practices are illegal, and they are wrong,” he added.
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