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Federal Monitors Must Get Permission to Be Inside Polling Places

Attorney General Eric Holder expresses disappointment in the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in the Alabama voting rights case, Shelby County v. Holder, Tuesday, June 25, 2013, at the Justice Department in Washington. The court declared unconstitutional a provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act that determines which states and localities must get Washington's approval for proposed election changes. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) J. Scott Applewhite / ASSOCIATED PRESS

This Election Day, a federal official keeping an eye out for voters will be inside certain polling places, if allowed by local authorities.

This is the first major election since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional.

Before that decision, the federal government for decades had deployed federal election observers authorized to enter polling places. But for this election, the Department of Justice is sending federal monitors, who must get the permission of local officials to enter polling places.

The Department of Justice said Monday it would have in-person monitors of polling place activities in 28 jurisdictions in 18 states on Tuesday's Election Day.

“This would be the first national general election since (the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision) and would definitely be the first national election in which federal observers don’t go out, for decades,” said Bob Kengle, voting rights project co-director for Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Kengle said in many cases. local officials are accommodating of monitors, "but that's not always the case."

"I think the federal observer coverage served several important purposes: one, to enable DOJ to document problems, but it also deterred problems from occurring in the first place," Kengle said.

Civil rights leaders have worried what effect the lack of observers and the Supreme Court ruling would have on voter protections, such as requirements that polling places provide bilingual assistance.

Several states also have implemented state voter ID laws that civil and voting rights groups and advocates for women, seniors and minorities have worried would suppress turnout.

Before the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 that nullified parts of the Voting Rights Act, certain jurisdictions were required to get approval for any election changes. Many of those jurisdictions were the very places federal election observers were sent.

In a video statement, Attorney General Eric Holder said the monitors will gather information on many things, such as whether voters are treated differently based on race or color; whether ballot accommodations are made for people with disabilities and whether jurisdictions comply with the Voting Rights Act’s requirement to provide bilingual election materials and assistance where needed.

“As citizens across the country go to the polls on Election Day, I want the American people to know that the Justice Department will stand vigilant _ working, in a fair and nonpartisan manner, to ensure that every voter can cast his or her ballot free of intimidation, discrimination or obstruction,” Holder said.

In a news release, the DOJ listed a number of civil and criminal statutes that federal civil rights attorneys can enforce and pointed out that a number of assistant U.S. attorneys serve as district election officers to oversee possible election crimes. Also, specially trained FBI personnel investigate voter fraud complaints.

DOJ has a voting rights complaint hotline set up at 1-800-253-3931 toll free or 202-307-2767.

Several civil rights and Latino groups also have formed an Election Protection Coalition to help with problems voters encounter at the polls or to answer questions, such as whether their state requires ID or not or where they go vote. The groups have created hotlines, 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA, for Spanish speakers and 1-866-OUR-VOTE for English speakers.