Last month, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that, for the first time in 50 years, the U.S. Department of Justice will not be able to send federal observers to the polls on Election Day this November to protect voters against racial intimidation and harassment when they attempt to vote. And this in a year where the possibility of racial intimidation at polling places across the country is particularly acute, given the racially charged rhetoric animating the presidential campaign. The federal observer program, created in 1965 by the Voting Rights Act (VRA), was designed to ensure that newly enfranchised African-American citizens would be able to vote free from discrimination, intimidation, or harassment. Over the years, the program has been used by both Republican and Democratic Administrations to protect the integrity of the electoral process by ensuring basic access to polling places for all voters. There are countless examples of the federal observer program being used to protect voters from racial discrimination at the polls. In 2012, federal observers monitoring an election in Shelby County, Alabama, documented the closing of doors on African-American voters before the voting hours were over, as well as voting officials using racial epithets to describe voters. That same year, observers were sent to Alameda and Riverside Counties in California to gather information regarding reports of serious failures to provide language assistance to voters who needed it. In 2011, a federal court relied on observer reports to conclude that Sandoval County, New Mexico, had effectively disenfranchised members of the Keres tribe. In 2010, during the early voting period in Harris County, Texas, federal observers documented intimidation and harassment targeting Latino and African-American voters by an organized, well-funded Texas-based organization with clear partisan electoral goals. And during a primary election in Grenada, Mississippi in 1999, white poll watchers showed up at polling sites with cameras that were used to take pictures of black voters who needed assistance casting their ballots, in an effort to intimidate them. Thankfully, as soon as these individuals found out that there were federal observers monitoring the election, they exited the polling site.
A former state election official from Forest, Mississippi, Constance Slaughter-Harvey, testified before Congress in 2006 that “when local election officials are placed on notice that their actions…are being monitored, there have been noticeable and significant improvements in the quality of the electoral process.” In another example, observers were sent to monitor elections in Sunflower, Mississippi, after residents alleged that law enforcement officers were arresting voters at the polls for traffic violations and other minor offenses.
This program has worked because observers are career federal employees from a wide range of agencies who are not tied to any state or local political or party apparatus. The federal observer’s job is only to watch, listen, and record. Penny Pew, the Elections Director in Apache County, Arizona, testified before Congress that the federal observers “do not interfere with the process” of voting and that the program “has proven successful…and has given us insight to the happenings at each polling place that would otherwise go unnoticed.”