The Justice Department is significantly reducing the number of federal observers stationed inside polling places in next month’s election at the same time that voters will face strict new election laws in more than a dozen states. These laws, including requirements to present certain kinds of photo identification, are expected to lead to disputes at the polls. Adding to the potential for confusion, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for his supporters to police the polls themselves for fraud. For the past five decades, the Justice Department has sent hundreds of observers and poll monitors across the country to ensure that voters are not intimidated or discriminated against when they cast their ballots. But U.S. officials say that a 2013 Supreme Court decision now limits the federal government’s role inside polling places on Election Day. “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 E. Lynch told a Latino civil rights group over the summer. “Our ability to deploy them has been severely curtailed.”
In recent months, the Justice Department and civil rights groups have successfully sued to block a number of states, such as North Carolina, that have put in place new voter restrictions that critics say target minority voters. But advocates are worried that these courtroom victories might not be enough to protect voters if the federal government is not able to enforce the law on Election Day.
… J. Gerald Hebert, the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, said it is critical to have federal observers who can actually go inside the polling places in the same way that candidates and political parties in most states can designate someone to be inside as a poll watcher. “You have to distinguish between sending a lawyer to a state who sits down at the U.S. attorney’s office and waits for people to call in,” said Hebert, an official in the Justice Department’s voting section for 20 years who went to several states on Election Day to monitor elections. “They’re not in the polling place, and they’re not even at the polling places,” Hebert said of the monitors. “They’re usually downtown at a hotel or a U.S. attorney’s office. That’s a lot different by a long shot than federal observers inside the polling place, because discrimination at the polls doesn’t take place outside.”
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, Hebert said.