Fewer Election Observers Will Be at Polls

2013 Supreme Court opinion cut power of Justice Department

The Justice Department will send election observers to as many states as it did in 2012, but there won't be as many of them. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Justice Department will dispatch fewer election observers to polls across the country this year because of a Supreme Court decision that eliminated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

The 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling will likely reduce the department's ability to identify cases of voter intimidation and other issues at the polls, The Associated Press reported.

In 2012, the Justice Department sent more than 780 observers and personnel to 23 states. It intends to send personnel, including election monitors, to at least as many states again this year, but fewer trained election observers. 

Observers have unrestricted access inside polling places on Election Day and cannot be removed. Monitors, on the other hand, rely on the cooperation of local officials to do their jobs. 

"We have been doing everything we can through our monitoring program to be able to be as effective as we can be" in ensuring fair elections, said Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division.

But Gupta added that there was no way to "sugarcoat" the effect of the 2013 opinion, which overturned part of the 1965 voting law.

With that decision, jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination no longer required approval from the federal government to change the way they hold elections. This allowed states to introduce new laws such as tougher voter ID requirements. More than a dozen states changed their voting rules in the wake of the ruling.

The ruling also changed the formula that the Justice Department uses to allocate observers and monitors to election polling sites. 

Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Wednesday in a video that the government would work to "ensure that every voter can cast his or her ballot free of unlawful intimidation, discrimination, or obstruction," despite their decreased manpower.

During previous elections, the program provided a safeguard for voters, Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the AP. For example, observers were sent to Greensboro, Alabama, after white election officials tried to prevent black voters from entering polling places.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.