[JURIST] The US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] on Tuesday announced [press release] that it would not post criminal prosecutors at the polls for the November 4 presidential election, responding to concerns raised by civil rights groups. The decision represents a departure from the DOJ's longstanding practice. Grace Chung Becker [profile], assistant attorney general for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division [official website], issued the following statement:
On Election Day, the primary responsibility of the Civil Rights Division is to ensure all eligible voters are able to cast their ballot in an environment free of discrimination, suppression or intimidation. The Division has and will use every statute within its purview to provide all voters with a free and fair electoral process.
On November 4, 2008, hundreds of federal government employees will be deployed in counties, cities and towns across the country to monitor polling places and to ensure compliance with federal voting statutes. In light of questions we have been asked regarding who will serve as election monitors, I want to inform the public that no criminal prosecutors will be utilized as election monitors on Election Day this year. This decision was made as a precaution and is not the result of any instance of intimidation or complaint regarding any specific incident.
Civil rights advocates have criticized what they perceive as the DOJ's emphasis on preventing voter fraud [Wall Street Journal report] rather than ensuring minority access to the polls, questioning whether the presence of prosecutors intimidates minorities [NPR report] in some communities. AP has more.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing [materials] earlier this month, Becker testified [prepared remarks, PDF] that elections monitors are "among the most effective means of ensuring that federal voting rights are respected on election day." She reported that this year, 364 federal observers and 148 other DOJ personnel have monitored 47 elections in 43 jurisdictions. In July, Attorney General Michael Mukasey told the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing [JURIST report] that enforcing voting rights would be a priority for the remainder of his tenure. The Voting Rights Act [text; DOJ backgrounder] authorizes federal courts and the attorney general to appoint federal observers [DOJ backgrounder] to monitor elections for voting-rights violations.