Though a Supreme Court decision will limit the amount of DOJ poll observers, the U.S. attorney general says the DOJ will “protect every eligible citizen’s right to vote.”
By Sheryl Estrada
Amid Republican presidential candidate Trump’s cries of a “rigged election,” and soliciting poll watchersor “Trump election observers” as stated on his website, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said voter intimidation anddiscrimination will not prevail.
“As the American people prepare to go to the polls, I want them to know that we stand ready to ensure that every voter can cast his or her ballot free of unlawful intimidation, discrimination, or obstruction,” Lynch said in a video released last week.
Lynch said the Department of Justice takes its responsibility to protect voting rights “so seriously” but admits the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder, has posed a challenge:
“[Our] work has only become more important since 2013, when the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County limited one of our most important tools to fight laws and policies that make it harder for many Americans, especially low-income citizens and citizens of color, to cast their ballots.”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed the attorney general to send federal observers to nine states Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia and to many municipalities and counties in other states.
These are areas with persistent histories of voting discrimination including “meritorious complaints from residents, elected officials or civic participation organizations,” in which efforts to deny or hinder the right to vote “on account of race or color or (membership in a minority language group) are likely to occur.”
Due to theShelby County v. Holderdecision,the DOJ can only send federal observers where authorized by court orders. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority.Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia (who died February 13), Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined the majority opinion. Justice Ginsburg was joined in dissent by Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
According to The Courier-Tribune, “On Election Day 2012, the Justice Department sent 780 observers and department personnel to 51 places in 23 states.” This month, “the Justice Department can send the special observers from the Office of Personnel Management only to a few places in Alaska, California, Louisiana and New York where they have been authorized by court orders.”
Lynch will send hundreds of DOJpersonnel to polling sites. She said they would work in conjunction with local officials. However, outside of Alaska, California, Louisiana and New York, unless local officials approve, DOJ personnel who are not court appointed observers will not have the authority to view activity inside the polling places and locations.
This has caused concern for civil rights and voting rights activists about the integrity of elections.
“Not having that seat on the front lines creates a disadvantage,” Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in an interview. “I think you need to be inside the polling sites shoulder to shoulder with poll workers and observing carefully every aspect of the process to ensure all voters are treated fairly.”
Vanita Gupta, the top civil rights official at the Justice Department, told the New York Times, “We do not want to be in the position we’re in. There’s no doubt that we’re going to be spread thinner,” she added, “but our hope and our intention is that we are going to have a very robust monitoring program” on Election Day.
Lynch said the DOJ is currently challenging the laws that make it hard for people of color to vote.
“I’m proud to say that the Justice Department has challenged a number of these laws in court,” she said. “And we will continue doing everything we can to fight back against unlawful practices and to protect every eligible citizen’s right to vote.”
Lynch also stressed that every American should vote and to impede others from voting is contrary to our “spirit of democracy.”
“The most fundamental rights we have as Americans is to choose our leaders at the ballot box,” Lynch said. “Attempts to abridge that right do more than just violate federal law, they run contrary to the defining spirit of our democracy.”