NBC News: Cutbacks to Poll Monitor Program Raise Voter Intimidation Fears
That's bad news for efforts to protect voters, said Gerald Hebert, who supervised federal election monitors over a long career as a top official in the voting section of the Justice Department's civil rights division. On-the-ground snafus or suppression at polling places often fly under the media's radar, but can have just as big an impact in keeping voters from the polls as better publicized factors like voter ID laws.
Hebert said monitoring allowed the feds to address problems in real time, rather than after the fact, which is usually too late to prevent a voter being disenfranchised.
"Let's say you have an official inside [a polling place] that is saying you need to show ID, when it's not required," said Hebert, now the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. "The observer is going to call DOJ right away, and they'll go down to the polling place and yank that person out. That's why it was such a check on discriminatory conduct."
But both Hebert and Kristen Clarke, the executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, said it's by no means clear that Shelby mandated the cutbacks.
"I don't believe this policy change was required," said Clarke, whose organization conducts similar "voter protection" work at polling places. "I think they took a very conservative reading of the Supreme Court decision on Shelby, which was silent on election observers."
"This really is a position that changes the landscape for this election cycle and future elections," Clarke added.
Hebert called the decision "overly narrow," and also faulted the department for announcing it publicly.
"By signaling that they are not going to be assigning poll watchers into voting booths, they've created an open season for those who want to intimidate voters—that there will be no federal observers to protect them," Hebert said, "I just don't think it was necessary to issue such a major public proclamation."