- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2016

The Justice Department has tasked 200 fewer monitors to watch more jurisdictions on Election Day this year than in 2012, despite increased concern over voter intimidation and vigilante poll watchers.

Reports that Justice Department monitors will be spread thin were disclosed as voting rights activists worry about long lines as a result of a reduction of polling places in some Southern states.

The Justice Department announced its plan Monday to deploy more than 500 personnel to 67 jurisdictions in 28 states. In 2012, the agency sent 780 monitors and personnel to 51 jurisdictions in 23 states.

The decrease in the number of observers and monitors is a direct result of a 2013 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The law authorized the Justice Department to deploy observers to jurisdictions that were under federal oversight because of discrimination against voters.

During the first presidential election in recent years without those Voting Rights Act safeguards, advocates fear the effects of new voter ID laws as well as actions by unofficial poll watchers.

“Without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, our nation has been subject to a resurgence of state and local efforts to disenfranchise voters of color,” said Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference Education Fund.

One trend driving concern has been the closure of polling places in states that previously were required under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to get pre-clearance by the Justice Department for all proposed voting changes.

A report released Friday by the leadership fund looked at closures of polling places in 381 of 800 counties previously covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The study found that 43 percent of the 381 counties have reduced the number of polling locations this year compared with 2012 and 2014. Voters in those counties, spread across seven Southern states, will have 868 fewer places to cast ballots this year.

“Some states have closed polling places on a massive scale,” says the report, which notes that closures include 404 polls in Texas, 212 in Arizona and 103 in Louisiana.

While there are legitimate reasons to close polls, Ms. Zirkin said, the “unreported, unnoticed and unchallenged” closures of hundreds of polling places can create additional barriers for minority voters on Election Day.

With fewer Justice Department monitors expected on the ground, other voter advocacy groups are bolstering their own nationwide monitoring efforts, staffing complaint hotlines or designing smartphone apps to help voters report election incidents in real time.

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said this year’s nonpartisan voter protection coalition efforts comprise the biggest operation yet in the group’s 14-year history. The Election Protection hotline set up by the committee has fielded tens of thousands of calls so far. Callers are asking about registration or reporting long lines during early voting.

“What is driving much of the angst and anxiety is this is the first presidential election in years without the Voting Rights Act,” Ms. Clarke said. “This is an election year where voters are more vulnerable to voter suppression and voter intimidation.”

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is conducting its typical observation of U.S. elections this year using more than 300 monitors. The group is scheduled to announce preliminary findings on Wednesday.

Other groups are distrustful of the Justice Department’s efforts and have launched their own poll watcher training.

True the Vote, an anti-fraud group, offered poll watcher training this election season but doesn’t actively place monitors in specific locations, said Catherine Engelbrecht, president of the group.

“I think that the Department of Justice has proven itself, time and again, to be a radical enforcement arm of this administration,” said Ms. Engelbrecht, stressing that accountability falls to citizens. “I wish that I could believe that their efforts on Election Day were of noble origin, but I for one have been on the receiving end of the Department of Justice one too many times to believe that fairy tale anymore. The only people I believe in anymore are the American people.”

True the Vote has launched a mobile app this cycle that allows users to report suspicious behavior at polls.

“The more transparent the process, the better off we all are,” Ms. Engelbrecht said. “And right now, because of the way the system is sort of whipstitched together, the risk of fraud is just inherent in the process.”

At polling places, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said Justice Department monitors will be gathering information on voters’ access to the ballot, including whether voters are subject to different qualifications on the basis of race or language.

“The bedrock of our democracy is the right to vote,” Ms. Lynch said. “On Election Day itself, lawyers in the Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section will staff a hotline starting in the early hours of the morning, and just as we have sent election monitors in prior elections, we will continue to have a robust election monitors program in place on Election Day.”

Among the locations that the Justice Department will dispatch monitors are Maricopa County, Arizona; Hartford, Connecticut; Palm Beach County, Florida; and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

The locations the Justice Department has chosen to send its monitors this year is indicative of areas where there have been either a history of voter discrimination or recent problems with voter access, such as through voter ID laws, said Nicole Austin-Hillery, director of the Brennan Center’s Washington office.

In some states, authorities have administered efforts this year to prevent voter fraud.

In Douglas County, Colorado, 24-hour security cameras watch voters as they slip ballots through the locked drive-thru boxes. Election security became a hot topic in Colorado after the Democrat-controlled state legislature instituted all-mail elections over the objections of Republicans in 2013. At the top of the list of concerns is that a mailed ballot may be intercepted and cast by someone other than the voter.

In Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court on Saturday reinstated a state law that makes it a felony for individuals who are not relatives or caregivers to collect and turn in voters’ early mail-in ballots. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled to block implementation of the law.

The Arizona Legislature enacted the law banning “ballot harvesting” this year over concern that partisan collectors would open ballots and toss out the ones that do not align with their political beliefs.

The Justice Department encourages anyone who sees polling place disruptions to first notify local election officials or law enforcement. The Election Day hotline staffed by Justice Department Civil Rights Division staff members is 1-800/253-3931.

Valerie Richardson contributed to this report.

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