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Justice Department vows to stop intimidation of voters

Says military ballots will be counted

Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)
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The Justice Department on Wednesday vowed to thwart any efforts to intimidate voters at the polls on Tuesday and to ensure that the ballots of military voters are counted, as activists on both sides of the political aisle reignite their regular election-time tango over the dangers of voter fraud versus voter suppression.

Facing separate investigations in its handling of a voter-intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party and questions over the failure of absentee ballots to be sent to military personnel and their families by the legally required date, the Justice Department moved to assure voters that they will have access to the polls and their votes will be counted in the midterm elections.

The department said it is committed to the enforcement of federal laws "that prohibit voter intimidation and suppression based on race, color, national origin or religion" at the polls, and will make sure that "our men and women serving overseas have the opportunity to vote and have their votes counted."

In what has become an election-season standard, conservative activists, led by "tea partiers" this time around, have set their sights on challenging voter registration applications and the eligibility of voters — a move liberal groups label as scare tactics used to suppress minority voters. Neither side has ever proved widespread abuse of the system, and studies show that election shenanigans are historically few and far between.

In a double-barreled release of unusually lengthy press releases, along with a briefing for reporters by Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the Civil Rights Division, the department said it has implemented a "comprehensive program" to help ensure ballot access and prohibit voter intimidation, and has reached agreements or won court orders in 14 states and territories to protect 65,000 overseas and military voters ahead of the midterm elections.

But Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said it was "outrageous" for the Justice Department to "solicit congratulation for procrastination, while many of our military voters are very likely being disenfranchised."

"The department should have been more proactive much earlier, by giving each state clear guidance on the new requirements under the MOVE Act and by ensuring from the start that each state had a satisfactory game plan for protecting the voting rights of our troops and their families," Mr. Cornyn said.

"Instead, the department sat back and watched as states tested the limits of the MOVE Act, then tried to patch problems after the fact with half-measures," he said. "Our military voters deserve better than this lethargic approach from the Department of Justice."

The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, or MOVE, enacted last year, requires states to transmit validly requested absentee ballots to voters no later than 45 days before a federal election. The act allows states to request waivers if they think the 45-day requirement will pose undue hardship. The Defense Department is responsible for determining which states will be granted waivers.

Hari Sevugan, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said the DNC has "confidence that voters are going to be able to go to polls and have their votes counted." He said the DNC is working with partners and officials at all levels to ensure that is the case.

In Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is trying to fight off Republican Sharron Angle, both sides are flinging allegations of dirty politics.

Democrats are accusing Republican goons of staring down minority voters at polling sites. And Republicans are accusing Mr. Reid of bribing college students with free pizza.

So far, the complaints of voter fraud or voter intimidation add up to little more than unsubstantiated rumors that Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller called "wildly irresponsible," but they could help motivate voters worried that their ballots will be miscast in a tight race.

"Sherlock Holmes and Columbo had something to start with," Mr. Miller said, referring to the fictional detectives of literature and television. "They are giving us nothing."

Later Wednesday, the FBI issued a separate press release also noting that the Justice Department is committed to the enforcement of federal laws "that prohibit voter intimidation and suppression based on race, color, national origin or religion," and will ensure that "our men and women serving overseas have the opportunity to vote and have their votes counted."

The FBI said agents in the bureau's 56 field offices will be on duty while polls are open to "receive complaints from the public and take appropriate action."

The Justice Department has come under increased scrutiny in recent months over its handling of a civil complaint in the New Black Panther Party case, initially sought by the Bush administration but later dismissed by Obama administration officials after a default judgment had been ordered by a federal judge.

Additionally, several states have failed to comply with MOVE and many lawmakers want to know what the Justice Department has done or will be doing about it. Some lawmakers have expressed concern that Justice officials did little after 16 states and territories were caught in noncompliance.

Mr. Perez said four states — Wisconsin, New Mexico, New York and Illinois — agreed to court-approved consent decrees and a federal judge in Guam ruled in favor of a Justice Department lawsuit over violations of the MOVE act.

He said Alaska, Colorado, Washington D.C., Hawaii, Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota and the Virgin Islands sought out-of-court settlements.

"All of these efforts demonstrate the department's firm commitment to ensuring that our men and women serving overseas have the opportunity to vote and have their votes counted," he said.

In the New Black Panther Party case, a civil complaint was filed in January 2009 accusing two party members in black berets, black combat boots, black shirts and black jackets of intimidating voters with racial insults, slurs and a nightstick at a Philadelphia polling place. A third party member was accused of directing and endorsing their behavior. The incident was captured on videotape and gained national attention after it was shown on YouTube.com.

Later, the charges were dismissed against the party, its chairman, Malik Zulu Shabazz, and Jerry Jackson, a Philadelphia party member. Justice sought an injunction against Minister King Samir Shabazz, who carried the nightstick, barring him from displaying weapons at polling places until 2012. The department said the "facts and the law did not support pursuing" the case any further.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Friday will release the results of an investigation it has conducted into the New Black Panther Party case that is expected to be critical of Justice. The 2010 Enforcement Report has focused on what some commissioners have called the growing evidence of a "culture of hostility in the Civil Rights Division to the race-neutral enforcement of the civil rights laws" involving supervisory attorneys and political appointees.

The Justice Department's Office of Inspector General announced last month it also was investigating the Civil Rights Division to determine whether voting section employees had been harassed for participating in specific investigations or prosecutions.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said his office would review what types of cases are being investigated, whether there have been changes in enforcement policies and procedures, and whether the civil rights laws are being enforced in a nondiscriminatory manner.

Mr. Fine said that while the review would include information about such cases as the New Black Panther Party matter and others, it would focus "more broadly on the overall enforcement of civil rights laws by the Voting Section rather than on a single case."

Christopher Coates, former chief of the voting rights section, testified before the commission in September, saying his Justice Department supervisors were not interested in pursuing Voting Rights Act accusations against minorities who harass white voters.

Mr. Coates said many within the Civil Rights Division "believe, incorrectly but vehemently, that enforcement of the VRA should not be extended to white voters but should be limited to protecting racial, ethnic and language minorities." He has since been reassigned as an assistant U.S. attorney in South Carolina.

J. Christian Adams, lead prosecutor in the New Black Panther case who has since left the department, told the commission in July that Justice officials had instructed Civil Rights Division attorneys to ignore cases that involved black defendants and white victims. He said, "Over and over and over again" the department showed "hostility" toward those cases.

Sean Lengell contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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