For almost fifty years, the US government has had an especially effective tool for ensuring fair elections: sending teams of federal observers to polling stations across the country. Though relatively little known, the program has been crucial in dismantling the discriminatory practices that disenfranchised voters of color. In the program’s early days, federal monitors risked their lives to collect evidence courts needed to outlaw the electoral mechanisms of Jim Crow. And as recently as the 2012 presidential election, the Justice Department dispatched more than 780 federal employees to 51 jurisdictions across 23 states. As a result of a 2013 Supreme Court decision, however, the program is now being quietly curtailed. In 2013, the Supreme Court hobbled the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which for decades had provided safeguards to prevent unfair voting practices, including special oversight for jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court found that Congress created a flawed formula to select those special jurisdictions. Last week, the Justice Department revealed that, in light of the Supreme Court decision, it has concluded that the Attorney General no longer retains the statutory authority to send observers to those jurisdictions.
The decision of the Justice Department, where I worked for five years, comes as state legislatures, primarily in the South, compete to limit access to the polls by the poor and by racial minorities. North Carolina continues to pursue a campaign to cut back the number of days in which voters can cast their ballots—a step that especially affects hourly-wage workers who cannot leave work on election day. Texas seeks to revive a draconian voter-ID requirement that, according to one federal court, forces poorer citizens to choose between their livelihood and their franchise.
Until now, federal observers monitored polls in states and jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act and also in other jurisdictions that consented to be monitored. Now, absent a court order, the Attorney General must request and receive permission to monitor polls in any jurisdiction. It’s hard to imagine North Carolina or Texas giving the federal government front seats to the consequences of their voter identification policies.
These jurisdictions have no legitimate reason to deny the government permission to observe the polls. Observers, well-trained federal employees drawn from across the government, do not interrupt or interfere with polling place operations. In fact, these civil servants, paid volunteers often in their fifties and sixties, work in pairs and spend election day sitting silently in the corner: they watch; they take notes; they document each voting irregularity they witness. Monitors leave the polls to interview turned-away voters and to update Justice Department lawyers.