November’s presidential election is the first in more than 50 years in which the federal government won’t send a full complement of specially trained observers to monitor elections in states, like Mississippi, with long records of discriminatory voting practices. After the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder weakened a core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the U.S. Department of Justice can deploy special election observers from the Office of Personnel Management only where authorized by a court order. Because of that requirement, the department will deploy a smaller number of its own staff attorneys and other personnel to monitor elections next month in roughly half the states. Unlike the special observers, the department staffers won’t have the authority to view activity inside polling places and locations where votes are tallied unless they get approval from local officials. That potential loss of access to real-time voting operations is causing concern among civil- and voting-rights activists about the integrity of Mississippi’s vote process.
“Not having that seat on the front lines creates a disadvantage,” said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations. “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.”
Federal observers “watch the election process, to collect evidence, to deter wrongdoing, to defuse tension and to promote compliance” with federal law, according to a recent speech by Vanita Gupta, the head of the civil rights division at the Justice Department. They also look for different treatment of voters based on race and whether materials and assistance are provided for non-English speakers and voters with disabilities.
In recent years, local Mississippi elections have been a frequent target of that Justice Department scrutiny. From June 2009 to September 2013 the department sent election observers to 31 jurisdictions in the state following complaints of possible discrimination.