A group of Office of Personnel Management employees -- who usually spend their days counting federal workers and overseeing Civil Service regulations -- will be in Alabama today at the request of the Justice Department to keep an eye on the state's runoff election.
The 287 employes will be the fourth group this year to act as observers under a program authorized by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to insure that illiterate and minority voters are afforded a fair opportunity to vote in the nine states and parts of 13 others covered by the act.
Barry H. Weinberg, deputy chief of the voting section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said observers are "assigned on the basis of localized problems and concerns" that are voiced before an election, either by political or civil rights leaders or by election officials.
"We need to have elections that appear to be fair to black voters, as well as elections that are fair," added Justice spokesman John V. Wilson.
"If they blacks don't perceive a fair election, it's as bad as a rigged election."
The perception problem has something to do with why OPM employes are tapped as observers.
The drafters of the Voting Rights Act figured it was better to use government employes who had no responsibility for any specific government program, to avoid the possibility of conflict of interest in an election.
Over the last decade, observer teams have looked in on 90 elections, most of them involving federal offices. Alabama was the only state to host observers for a federal election this year, with 461 OPM employes stationed in six counties in its Sept. 7 congressional primary. Observers were sent earlier this year to oversee several municipal elections in Georgia and one in Lake Providence, La.
The election the observers will be watching in Alabama is the Democratic runoff for governor between former governor George C. Wallace and Lt. Gov. George McMillan. Observers will be in seven counties. Most of them are drawn from regional OPM offices and Washington makes up the balance. Alabama will have 59 OPM observers from Washington.
Justice is sending 18 civil rights lawyers and specialists to supervise the OPM employes.
OPM is generally given about 10 days' notice that observers will be needed, and the agency's personnel office puts out a call for volunteers. First chosen are those who have previous experience or training as election observers. The rest, according to OPM, are selected at random. OPM personnel official Ronald J. Fedorowicz said most are grades GS5 to GS13, about half women. They are paid regular wages plus overtime for election work.
Weinberg said that OPM has been asked on occasion to increase the number of blacks on the observer teams. Fedorowicz said he didn't know the black-white ratio of the Alabama team.
The observers, who have no official status at the polling stations, are supposed to report any suspicious activities by poll workers to a supervising Justice Department attorney stationed in each county. The most common problems involve registration challenges and aid to those who can't understand the ballots because they are illiterate, blind or otherwise handicapped.