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Justice department dispatches election monitors

From Justice Producer Terry Frieden
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department Monday announced it has dispatched an army of election observers and monitors across the country to polling places where it sees a potential for discrimination or other voting rights violations.

After weeks of considering requests for a federal presence, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his Civil Rights Division lawyers decided to send 850 poll watchers to 69 jurisdictions in 22 states.

The federal authorities are being sent to monitor a wide variety of specific issues. In New Orleans, Louisiana, however, the observers will be there primarily to provide support to a wobbly post-Katrina election system that could be overwhelmed by residency issues. (Watch what the Justice Department will be looking for -- 1:59 Video)

The federal force includes more than 500 trained observers from the Office of Personnel Management. They are going to places with troubled histories as certified by the Attorney General or the federal courts under provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Those locations include polling places where allegations of racial, ethnic and language discrimination have surfaced in the past -- some as far back as the 1970s.

In Alabama, observers are going to Chambers, Lee, and Tuscaloosa counties. They are three of seven white majority counties where black candidates are challenging white candidates. African-American groups asked for observers to ensure their rights are protected.

In Noxubee County, Mississippi, observers will be watching polling stations where alleged discrimination against white voters by black elections officials triggered a federal investigation and lawsuit.

The Justice Department is also sending more than 350 monitors, including attorneys from its Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorneys offices, to other hot spots where complaints have been registered or tensions have run high.

The Justice Department has declined official comment on why any of the locations were selected.

Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Wan Kim said the anticipated closeness of races would be one factor in making the final decisions on where to send observers. But in the end, few of the jurisdictions receiving federal scrutiny will be in states with heated Senate races.

Eight counties in South Dakota and five in Arizona with substantial Native American populations are on the list. In Arizona, Native Americans have warned of tensions in a race where there is debate over whether a Native American state senator endorsed a congressional candidate.

Unfettered access to the polls and the availability of minority language ballots are among the issues in Kings County, Queens County and Richmond County in New York and in five counties in New Jersey. Many of the locations have substantial Spanish-speaking communities.

An official with the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights called the Justice Department's announcement Monday "a mixed bag."

"It seems they took some of our recommendations to heart," said attorney Julie Fernandez. "Our biggest disappointment is that they are not sending anyone to North Carolina or Alaska," she said.

In Chatham County, North Carolina, there is a hotly contested referendum on county commission voting districts, which is opposed by black residents who have expressed fear of voter suppression tactics.

Civil Rights groups charge that in Alaska, the state has not implemented the language protections required to ensure the rights of Native Americans. Some small native villages have no polling precincts and have complained about problems with absentee ballots.

However, the Justice Department did send monitors to several other locations recommended by minority groups. Observers will be in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, where there is a racially heated runoff for a vacant sheriff's seat. In that contest, the black female interim sheriff alleges her opponent used racial slurs at a number of public campaign events.


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Volunteers set up voting booths Monday in Maryland.

Locations of observers

The list of counties and cities where federal election observers and monitors will be sent, according to the Justice Department:

  • Alabama: Chambers County, Lee County, Tuscaloosa County

  • Arizona: Apache County, Cochise County, Maricopa County, Navajo County, Pima County

  • Arkansas: Pulaski County

  • California: Alameda County, Orange County, San Benito County, San Diego County, San Francisco, San Mateo County, Santa Clara County, Ventura County

  • Colorado: Adams County, Arapahoe County, Denver County

  • Florida: Broward County, Duval County, Hillsborough County, Osceola County, Palm Beach County

  • Illinois: Cook County, Chicago

  • Kansas: Ford County

  • Louisiana: Concordia Parish, New Orleans, St. Landry Parish

  • Massachusetts: Boston, Springfield

  • Michigan: Hamtramck

  • Mississippi: Noxubee County

  • Montana: Rosebud County

  • Nebraska: Colfax County

  • New Jersey: Bergen County, Essex County, Hudson County, Middlesex County, Salem County

  • New Mexico: Cibola County, Sandoval County

  • New York: Kings County, Queens County, Richmond County, Westchester County

  • Ohio: Cuyahoga County

  • Pennsylvania: Berks County

  • South Dakota: Bennett County, Buffalo County, Charles Mix County, Dewey County, Mellette County, Shannon County, Todd County, Ziebach County

  • Texas: Brazos County, Ector County, Fort Bend County, Galveston County, Hale County, Medina County, Travis County, Williamson County, Wilson County

  • Washington: King County, Pierce County

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