Gerald W. Jones flew to Alabama yesterday to stand by, as he has every election year since 1970, as the Justice Department's man-on-the-spot in the South.
As observers from the Office of Personnel Management watch the voting, Jones will sit in an office in downtown Selma from 7:45 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. with one other Justice employe, waiting to hear what's happening in the field and what problems need to be solved, to guarantee black voters the same voice white voters have. This year, Jones will coordinate 264 observers at 68 polling places in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.
"What we try to do is establish early contact with local election officials," he said. "Once we establish that, we try to keep the lines of communication open between us, so we can apprise them of problems.
"Some things start out little that could end up as problems," Jones explained. "The malfunction of a particular voting machine or the development of long lines in a particular precinct could have an adverse effect on the voter in that particular precinct.
"The main question is usually the voter assistance offered at the polls," he added. "If the voter needs help reading the ballot, there's a question of how the assistance is given. The complaints we usually get are that the voter's vote is not being cast in the manner he wants--that the person assisting imposes his or her will on the ballot."
But in the 17 years since the the Voting Rights Act was first passed, the once charged relationship between the observers and the local officials has become muted. "They are a lot less antagonistic now about our being there," Jones said. "In fact, in recent years there's been an increasing number of requests by local officials that we send an observer.
"They find that it's an advantage because the observer records what happens, and if they are faced with challenges they can relay our reports" to those who complain.