The Justice Department said Tuesday it will not station criminal prosecutors at the polls on Election Day after civil rights groups said minority voters who are expected to turn out in unprecedented numbers because of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama could be intimidated.
The move reverses a decades-long practice that put prosecutors on the lookout for voter fraud, ballot access violations and other polling problems.
"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," acting Assistant Attorney General Grace Chung Becker said in a statement.
She added: "This decision was made as a precaution and is not the result of any instance of intimidation or complaint regarding any specific incident."
Becker and Attorney General Michael Mukasey met two weeks ago with about 40 representatives from voter access watchdogs, hoping to assure them that having a smooth Nov. 4 election is a top Justice Department priority. A heavy minority turnout is expected for Obama, who is an African-American.
Although federal prosecutors have in past elections focused on preventing voter fraud — in other words, making sure voters are eligible to vote — Becker pledged to ensure ballot access for as many people as possible. She said the Justice Department will station hundreds of federal monitors around the country to make sure voters aren't unfairly kept from the polls. The monitors won't include prosecutors this year.
Some civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the monitors themselves could be part of the problem.
The watchdog groups said many minority voters historically have been intimidated in their encounters with police, prosecutors and other law enforcement at the polls. They said that having criminal prosecutors monitor the election process could curb turnout among minority voters.
Advocates recall 2004, when long lines at minority-dominated voting precincts in Ohio led to widespread complaints and a Democratic Party lawsuit that the election process unfairly helped President Bush win the state. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit almost a year later.