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Federal observers and monitors heading to polls

From Terry Frieden
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department plans to dispatch more than 800 federal observers and monitors to 20 states to protect voting rights in potentially troubled polling locations, officials announced Tuesday.

That is a record number of federal officials watching polling stations in an off-year election.

"Yes, the anticipated closeness of races is one factor in our decisions about where we'll be sending people," said Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Wan Kim.

Kim said he would not identify until Monday the more than 65 cities and counties to which the observers will be sent.

The locations where federal observers will be stationed are selected because of past polling problems, an uneasy history among ethnically or racially diverse groups, or where fears and allegations of potential violations are asserted.

The Justice Department is reluctant to make public plans for elections observers. One official said that is because observers are viewed, in part, as frontline collectors of data that could be used to construct cases against local jurisdictions.

An influential non-governmental group, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, has asked the Justice Department to send monitors to seven locations in Alabama where black candidates are challenging white candidates. The organization also asked for monitors in Alaska where, it said, "the Native Alaskan community faces multiple barriers to voting access."

The group also called on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to watch for problems at locations in Arizona, Louisiana, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Virginia.

The group's concern in Virginia is centered on Chesterfield County, where in 2004 armed guards were placed at polls to "ward off terrorists." Would-be voters were incorrectly told while in line that they needed an identification card to vote.

Focus on racial, ethnic hotspots

State voter-identification requirements are before courts in several states, where varying requirements are alleged by some groups to be unconstitutionally restrictive.

Justice officials say the election observers will focus on historic racial and ethnic hotspots, and also will watch for balloting access issues and assistance for non-English speakers and the disabled.

In addition, U.S. attorneys, the FBI and criminal fraud prosecutors from will be on standby in the event evidence of ballot stuffing or other voting fraud is found.

"The Criminal Division's Public Integrity Section has assigned attorneys to assist with potential election crimes," a Justice Department statement said.

Those officials will be on duty to field complaints from the time the polls open in the East until they close in the West, the department said. The criminal investigators and prosecutors will not be at the polling stations. Any investigations will take place after the elections.

Despite warnings by some computer scientists and interest groups of problems with voting machines, Justice Department officials charged with enforcing the Help America Vote Act of 2002 insisted Tuesday they do not anticipate widespread problems.

"Clearly, some states are moving along better than others," Kim said. "Those who waited too long to implement requirements are a bit behind the eight ball."

This year the Justice Department brought cases against New York, Maine, Alabama and New Jersey for violations, all of which have been resolved, Kim said.

Sensitive mission

The hundreds of experienced monitors from the Justice Department and observers from the Office of Personnel Management heading to the polls are trained for a sensitive mission: wading into sometimes tense and strongly partisan surroundings under intense scrutiny.

More than 1,000 federal personnel were sent to monitor elections in 2004. Greater numbers are the norm in presidential election years, when voter turnout is higher, officials said.

The Justice Department officials acknowledge walking a tightrope. They want to make clear they will vigorously enforce federal voting laws but are equally determined not to intrude in a process run almost entirely by state officials.

The observers must represent an eagle-eye corps dedicated to protecting voters' rights while remaining virtually invisible and avoiding actions that could be viewed as heavy-handed or intimidating.

Civil rights authorities say the monitors quietly identify themselves to polling officials, which serves both to provide notice of a source of assistance should problems arise, as well as a not-so-subtle deterrent against raising obstacles to categories of minority voters protected by federal statutes.

"We want to send a strong message that we want fair elections," Gonzales told reporters Tuesday. "While our role is relatively small, it is an important role, and we intend to play it."

He said his department over the past year prosecuted more voting-rights cases than in any prior year.

During the past four years, the Justice Department charged 120 people with election fraud offenses, 86 of whom have been convicted of voter fraud.

Another approximately 200 investigations are open.

The nature of the cases has changed since the tumult of the early 1960s produced the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the time, the vast majority of cases concerned the provision of ballot access to black voters in Southern states.

Since then, overt discrimination against minority voters has declined. However, more subtle forms of bias at the polls remains a concern in certain locations.

In one ongoing case in Mississippi, black elections officials have been sued for violating the voting rights of white voters.

In recent years, attention has shifted to providing unfettered ballot access and voting assistance to tribal and ethnic groups who are entitled to federal protections. Native Americans, Hispanics and Vietnamese voting groups have received the most federal help on Election Day because of incidents of alleged discrimination.

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