A U.S. Department of Justice press release warns individuals who may serve as poll watchers hoping to prevent voter fraud could violate voter intimidation laws.
Upon first blush, what may appear to be a middling warning that voter fraud and abuse will not be tolerated by federal law enforcement also casts a shadow over various lawful election activities with broad language apparently intended to caution individuals from performing their duties.
A statement initially circulated by various U.S. Attorney’s offices outline several forms of election crimes to include “buying and selling votes, impersonating voters,” and others, yet offers a blanket warning to individuals that may hope to disrupt and document similar plots that those actions may, too, “violate federal voting rights law.” The DOJ comment specifically counsels against communicating with voters and “challenging them”, plus the capture of still and video images is also mentioned. The statement does not grant the varying distinctions in which states may allow communication between voters and poll watchers, nor does the DOJ note that some observers in specific states do indeed have the power to challenge would-be voters based on documented ineligibility. As a point of fact, some states—Missouri as an example—specifically call election observers “challengers”, according to local statutes.
The lacking distinctions and threats carefully directed at the vigilant voter do not occur in a vacuum. Though it is normal for law enforcement agencies at many levels to share contact information prior to an election in a “see-something-say-something” capacity, the national discussion spurred by Donald Trump regarding a combination of concerns related to rigged elections and poll watching further underscores the DOJ’s curious language used to warn against organized election integrity efforts.
Despite Delaware U.S. Attorney Charles M. Oberly, III’s assurances that, “Every citizen must be able to vote without interference or discrimination and to have that vote counted without it being stolen because of fraud,” the DOJ Civil Rights Division’s record of bringing violators to justice is virtually non-existent in recent memory. The last voter intimidation case brought was against members of the New Black Panther Party shortly before the inauguration of Barack Obama after a video surfaced of a poll watcher brandishing a nightstick outside of a Philadelphia polling place. The Holder DOJ effectively dropped the case after the defendant defaulted on it. Prior to that, the Justice Department in 2005 accused a black Democrat county chairman in rural Mississippi of committing intimidating and discriminatory acts against white voters.
The U.S. Attorney from Delaware explains that like seen in previous elections, his office will be coordinating with FBI field offices and the Voting Section of the DOJ Civil Rights Division to respond to voter complaints. Concerned voters are encouraged to contact officials directly with an online complaint form.