This year’s presidential election will be the first in a half-century without the significant presence of federal observers at polling places. That’s because in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, and when the court wiped out that section, the statute that provided for election observers went, too. The landmark decision in Shelby County v. Holder doesn’t mean civil rights officials are totally disarmed. The Justice Department will still send out “hundreds” of “monitors” to oversee Election Day compliance. But the number is smaller than it was before, and monitors can only enter the polling place if local officials agree. Observers, by contrast, had a statutory right to be inside polling places. They were trained specifically for the task. There also were many more of them, and they had far more authority than monitors.
“We can’t deny the costs of Shelby County” in terms of enforcement powers, says Vanita Gupta, assistant attorney general for civil rights. “The hope is that just by having the presence of the federal government at polling sites, even if we may be slightly more diminished or spread thinner, that our sheer presence has sufficient deterrent effect and gives voters the confidence that they need to feel like the process is fair,” she adds.
Gupta says she expects federal monitors to fan out over half the states on Election Day.
None of these monitors, however, will have the automatic legal clout that observers did. Unlike monitors, observers typically were stationed inside polling places to watch partisan poll watchers and to make sure rights were enforced. They would also verify that the number of voters jibed with final vote tallies. Indeed, they could even go inside the polling booth to make sure assistors were accurately recording the votes of people who needed help casting their ballots.