In a move civil rights groups denounced as a blatant attempt by the Trump administration to intimidate minorities, spread hysteria about non-existent voter fraud, and suppress turnout, the Justice Department announced on Monday that it is dispatching personnel to "monitor" 35 voting locations in 19 states during Tuesday's midterms just as President Donald Trump warned in a tweet that any "illegal voting" will be punished with "maximum criminal penalties."
"This is a shameful, disgraceful, and naked voter suppression attempt intended on breaking people's spirit and instilling fear in the 11th hour."
—Kristen Clarke, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law"We condemn the Justice Department's announcement regarding the deployment of federal observers," Kristen Clarke, president and CEO of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement. "In stark contrast to how these observers have been deployed in the past, Attorney General Jeff Sessions does not have his eyes set on voter suppression and last-minute intimidation but is instead exploiting this moment to push a false narrative about voter fraud."
"At every turn, this Justice Department has failed to take action to enforce the Voting Rights Act and protect the interests of minority voters. And the latest announcement from DOJ makes clear that this is still the case," Clarke continued. "This is a Justice Department that has abandoned its mission and lost its way."
We've heard repeatedly from voters on our 866-OUR-VOTE hotline that they do not find this DOJ responsive to concerns about voter suppression. The record supports their concerns.
— Kristen Clarke 866-OUR-VOTE (@KristenClarkeJD) November 5, 2018
States the Justice Department said it plans to monitor during Tuesday's midterm elections include Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, where extremely close and significant races have drawn national attention. In a press release on Monday, the Justice Department provided a full list of counties it plans to watch.
Asked by Buzzfeed reporter Dominic Holden why it chose these particular locations, the Justice Department dodged the question and vaguely cited a "number of factors."
DOJ sending staff to monitor 35 jurisdictions for compliance with voting rights laws — here’s DOJ press release with the list. pic.twitter.com/URs3uM28ZH
— Dominic Holden (@dominicholden) November 5, 2018
The Justice Department's announcement came at almost the same time as Trump warned—for the second time in just a few weeks—that all "illegal voting" will be severely punished.
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"Law enforcement has been strongly notified to watch closely for any illegal voting which may take place in Tuesday's election (or early voting)," Trump declared on Twitter. "Anyone caught will be subject to the maximum criminal penalties allowed by law."
Law Enforcement has been strongly notified to watch closely for any ILLEGAL VOTING which may take place in Tuesday’s Election (or Early Voting). Anyone caught will be subject to the Maximum Criminal Penalties allowed by law. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 5, 2018
The president's threat immediately sparked backlash from advocacy groups and legal experts who have been fighting back against the GOP's efforts to suppress voter turnout ahead of Tuesday's midterm elections, where they face the prospect of losing control of Congress.
"This is a shameful, disgraceful, and naked voter suppression attempt intended on breaking people's spirit and instilling fear in the 11th hour," Clarke of the Lawyer's Committee wrote on Twitter. "Black people and people of color have seen these schemes throughout history. We rejected them then and we reject them now."
Given the Justice Department's record under Sessions—which, as Ian Millhiser notes at ThinkProgress, shows it doesn't "give a damn about voting rights"—the White House's last-ditch attempt to drive down turnout did not entirely surprise civil rights groups, which have been urging all voters to immediately report any intimidation they experience or witness.
"Being struck by lightning is more common than voter impersonation fraud," the ACLU wrote on Twitter. "Voter intimidation is also incredibly rare, but one way to recognize it is the threat of law enforcement at the polls. If you witness voter intimidation, call 866-OUR-VOTE."
Being struck by lightning is more common than voter impersonation fraud.
Voter intimidation is also incredibly rare, but one way to recognize it is the threat of law enforcement at the polls.
If you witness voter intimidation, call 866-OUR-VOTE. https://t.co/DJbGy3oda4
— ACLU (@ACLU) November 5, 2018