Poll Position

The feds used to be in the business of protecting voting rights. Then came the Bush Justice Department.

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The Brennan Center for Justice and other watchdog groups have established that actual voter fraud is "extremely rare" and pales in comparison to voter disenfranchisement. Ironically, the Justice Department's full-bore assault on phantom fraud is making it more difficult for even well-meaning election officials to meet the administrative demands of historically high voter registration over the next couple of weeks. And it's doing nothing whatsoever to police those who are being willfully negligent.

Meanwhile, watchdogs are furiously sorting through registration data in battleground states to determine where problems are occurring and to predict where resource shortages may cause chaos on Election Day. That, of course, should be the Justice Department's job. The Voting Section is supposed to send monitors to polling places in each election to watch for irregularities. When there's a chronic problem, those monitors contact the department's election lawyers to intervene. But by and large, their job is to collect data that can be used to target preventive resources in the upcoming election.

In 2004, says Daniels, the department destroyed this time-tested system by sending untrained hacks out as monitors—and putting them in all the wrong places. Ohio, which had long since been identified as a trouble spot, had just two monitors for the entire state, says Daniels. "Some of the 'election coverage' merely consisted of an attorney with a cell phone in the U.S. attorney's office," she testified during the Senate hearing last month.

In one positive sign, Becker announced last week that the department has agreed to stop sending out monitors who are actually prosecutors and FBI agents—people who aren't trained in spotting voting rights violations but who do intimidate voters, particularly first-time voters and people of color. It's a sign of just how bad things have gotten that advocates roundly welcomed this pitiful concession as a step forward.

Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.

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