On November 8, there will be fewer federal observers at polling places than at any time since the 1960s, yet they will be needed more than ever. Officials in 14 Republican-run states will try to impose newly minted voter restriction rules and Donald Trump is inciting his followers to intimidate minority voters.
“In the past, we have … relied heavily on election observers, specially trained individuals who are authorized to enter polling locations and monitor the process to ensure that it lives up to its legal obligations,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said recently. “Our ability to deploy them has been severely curtailed.”
For over 50 years, the Justice Department has sent hundreds of observers and poll monitors across the country to ensure that voters are not intimidated or discriminated against. In 2012, during the presidential election, the department sent more than 780 observers to polling places in 51 jurisdictions in 23 states to report on possible civil rights violations.
But the following year, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and in doing so limited the Justice Department’s authority to monitor elections.
This year, Justice Department officials say they are sending observers to fewer than five states, all to locations where oversight has been specifically ordered by judges.
The Justice Department has not said how many observers will be sent.
However, they did say that Federal observers will not be sent inside polling places in the 14 states where for the first time poll workers are being asked to implement new voter suppression laws, including ID requirements.
Gerald Hebert, director of voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center, said “without federal observers, there’s nobody watching the [other poll] watchers, who can intimidate or challenge voters or slow down the process and, for example, contribute to long lines at lunchtime when voters have limited time to vote and get back to work.”
In recent months, the Justice Department and civil rights groups have won court cases to block voter suppression schemes in a number of states, such as North Carolina, but voting rights advocates have said that victories in the courtroom might not be enough to protect voters at the polls.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the Washington Post that “historically, the federal observer program has been a valuable and necessary tool to help prevent intimidation and harassment of minority voters.”
She said that cutting down the number of federal observers comes “… at a moment when we have a presidential candidate who has called for … untrained individuals to monitor activity at the polls.”
During rallies held in white suburbs of various cities, Trump has urged his followers to go to polling places with large numbers of minority voters and attempt to intimidate voters there.
In August, at a rally in Ohio, Trump said “you’ve got to get every one of your friends. You’ve got to get every one of your family. You’ve got to get everybody to go out and watch … And when I say ‘watch,’ you know what I’m talking about. Right?”
Trump’s followers know exactly what he’s talking about.
He’s been continually whining that “the only way I’ll lose” is through “cheating” at the ballot box.
In Trump-speak, “cheating” is a dog whistle word for poor and minority people voting.
In recent rallies, Trump has even abandoned “dog whistle” rhetoric and has been loud and clear about which polling places he wants his followers to go to: sites with large numbers of immigrant voters.
Two weeks ago, he lied that the Obama administration was illegally letting immigrants into the country to vote for the sole purpose of defeating him.
The Trump campaign website asks supporters to sign up to be a “Trump Election Observer.” If you do, you receive an email saying that “someone from the campaign will be contacting you soon.”
“We’ve never seen anything like this coming from a presidential candidate,” Richard L. Hasen, a law and political science professor at the University of California, told the Washington Post.
Hasen said Trump’s comments about undocumented immigrants voting is a continuation of his “irresponsible” promoting of the totally discredited notion that voter fraud is rampant.
As the New York Times reported September 19, study after study has shown that there is virtually no voter fraud in the U.S. The most comprehensive investigation to date found that out of one billion votes cast in all American elections between 2000 and 2014, there were 31 possible cases of impersonation fraud. Other violations — like absentee ballot fraud, multiple voting and registration fraud — are also exceedingly rare.
Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said that Trump is “trying to undermine the election system …”.
With Trump inciting his supporters to invade minority neighborhood polling places, with new voter restriction laws going into effect, and with virtually no federal monitors to protect voting rights, “we’re bracing for the worst,” Lawyer’s Committee President Clarke said.
“… it’s open season on voters at the polls because there won’t be any federal observers there inside,” Campaign Legal Center’s Hebert said.