When the Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act in 2015, we learned that the 2016 election would be the first in two generations without the basic protections for equal voting rights for all people.
The Voting Rights Act challenge was bound up with the passage of voter suppression laws in states where the GOP/Tea Party had taken office in the 2014 midterm elections, laws that re-implemented unconstitutional poll taxes, literacy tests, and other notorious techniques for keeping poor and racialized people out of the polls.
Federal election observers are where the rubber meets the road under the Voting Rights Act: these federal officers attended polling places and gathered evidence when local election officials prevented voters from casting a ballot. Under the Supreme Court ruling, these observers are only allowed to attend polling places in states where there are federal court rulings mandating their presence: Alabama, Alaska, California, Louisiana, and New York — but the DoJ says that 11 mostly southern states are locii of voter suppression, and that it would have sent election observers into those states in the absence of the Supreme Court ruling.
This year's election observer deployment will be one of the nation's lowest since 1965.
In Sandoval County, New Mexico, federal observer reports showed that Native-American voters had difficulty getting voting information in their native languages during the decade between 1994 and 2004, according to a 2011 court order in a case the United States brought against the county.
Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, said federal observers are especially needed this year because 17 states have tightened restrictions on voting since the last presidential election.
"We're very disappointed by the decision of the Justice Department," said Ho. The Supreme Court ruling did not mention the federal observer program specifically, "so I don't think this decision was inevitable," he added.
Anita Earls, the executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and a former senior official in the Justice Department's voting section, said the guaranteed ability of federal observers to examine voter registration rolls and remain inside polling stations makes them more effective than Justice Department staff at catching voter suppression.
(Image: Voter Suppression Trend NC, Democracy Chronicles, CC-BY)