Voting rights advocates are preparing for a “perfect storm of chaos” on Election Day — and not just because a hurricane has already affected registrations in some key battleground states.
Reports of voter disenfranchisement have already cropped up during early voting, the advocates say. Some Texas election officials are implementing a voter ID law that a federal appeals court struck down as discriminatory. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said he fears the election will be rigged and urged voters to “go out and watch the polls,” prompting fears of voter intimidation among minorities, particularly.
This will be the first presidential election since 1964 without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key enforcement provision in the civil rights law that required certain states to check any election changes with the Justice Department.
Because of that decision, the DOJ says it will send poll observers to far fewer states that have a history of disenfranchising voters this year. The department monitored 28 jurisdictions in 18 states in 2014 and 51 jurisdictions in 23 states in 2012.
“All of those factors are coming together to make the most problematic election in 50 years” in terms of voter suppression or intimidation, said Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We have literally a perfect storm of chaos.”
Voter advocates are preparing to respond to the worst, hoping for the best and trying to get ahead of the problem now that in-person early voting has started in some states. More than 5.9 million people have already voted through Oct. 23, according to Michael P. McDonald, an associate political science professor at the University of Florida who tracks early voting on the United States Election Project.
A hotline for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has received more than 42,000 calls from voters around the country so far, Kristen Clarke, the nonpartisan group’s president, said Wednesday. The group is recruiting thousands of volunteers to deal with complaints about early voting, absentee voting and the process for voting.
Some problems crop up every year because humans run elections, and humans make errors. But the advocates say this could be a particularly bad year for disenfranchised voters particularly in states formerly restricted under the Voting Rights Act, especially in the South.
“Voting discrimination and voter suppression are alive and well,” Clarke said. “These are problems we as advocates continue to wrestle with every day.”
Elections are run by state officials and are governed by local laws and rules. Voting rights groups sent letters to those officials Tuesday asking for them to commit the resources necessary to keep lines down and to ensure that encounters at the polls are not in violation of established local rules, Henderson said.
While federal appeals courts struck down voter ID laws in Texas and North Carolina as discriminatory, “nonetheless, we see local election officials in both of those states undermining the weight of the court’s ruling,” Clarke said.
In North Carolina, someone showed up to early voting with a badge saying “poll observer” and was photographing and videotaping cars coming and going and “generally, being a very intimidating factor there,” said Anita Earls of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham. The situation was stopped with a call to local officials.
Stop the Steal, a group linked to Trump confidant Roger Stone, says on its website that it will conduct exit polling to determine if the results are accurate. The Huffington Post reported Tuesday that another group connected to Trump supporters, Vote Protectors, has an “I.D. Badge Generator” on its site where volunteers can create an official-looking badge. Another part of the website said volunteers would post streaming video to the site.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee plans to send observers to polling places, said Samer Khalaf, the group's president.
“Our fear is people are going to heed this call, they’re going to go to areas that are predominantly Arab or Muslim” and disrupt the elections, Khalaf said.
Clarke said that the effort to make sure voters are disenfranchised could lay the groundwork for the case that Congress should update the Voting Rights Act to counter the Supreme Court’s ruling.
A bill by Wisconsin GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a former Judiciary chairman, would restore the enforcement provision in the voting rights law. But Republican Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, the current chairman, has said a fix is not necessary because the law still provides substantial protections.