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Florida, Missouri tell Justice Department voting monitors to stay outside polling places

Federal monitors would need local permission to observe activity inside election sites

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis oversees the Florida Department of State. (Thomas Simonetti/For The Washington Post)

The administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has refused to allow Justice Department election monitors to go inside polling locations in South Florida, saying in a letter that the federal government’s involvement would be “counterproductive” and “potentially undermine confidence in the election.”

On Monday, the Justice Department announced that it would send monitors to 64 jurisdictions nationwide, up from 44 jurisdictions in 2020, to evaluate how elections are being conducted amid a wave of threats to election workers and politicians, and allegations of voter intimidation.

Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties were all slated to receive federal monitors from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Federal monitors also were sent to some Florida localities in 2020, during the Trump administration, but they remained outside because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Brad McVay, the chief counsel for the Florida Department of State, said in a letter issued late Monday that those monitors would not be allowed inside polling places this year under Florida law.

McVay said the Florida secretary of state’s office — which is overseen by DeSantis, considered a likely contender for the 2024 presidential race — would instead send its own monitors to those three counties, which are among the most populous and Democratic-leaning counties in Florida.

“Florida statutes list the people who ‘may enter any polling room or polling place,’ ” McVay wrote. “Department of Justice personnel are not included on the list.”

While the Justice Department is permitted to place monitors inside polling locations, the department must receive permission from local election officials to do so, according to Sean Morales-Doyle, director of the voting rights program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit law and public policy institute.

The Justice Department has said it followed standard procedure on Tuesday and has monitors positioned outside polling locations in Florida and Missouri, where state officials also said the federal representatives would not be welcome inside.

Morales-Doyle said it is typical for the Justice Department to position its monitors — all of whom are lawyers — either inside or outside polling locations, depending on what they are observing. A monitor observing whether a location is accessible to people with disabilities, for example, may be stationed inside. One focused on potential voter intimidation could be outside.

“The fact that Florida is saying they do not want monitors in their polling locations is not in conflict with how the law works,” Morales-Doyle said. “I do not think it is the right decision to say they cannot come in, but I do think that election officials can say who they want in their polling places.”

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Before 2013, under the federal Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department had the authority to dispatch workers to observe voting inside polling places at localities that had histories of racial discrimination in their voting process. But the department lost that authority after a Supreme Court ruling that year that struck down portions of the voting rights law.

In a news release announcing where monitors would be sent this year, the Justice Department noted that it has observed local election procedures nationwide since 1965.

Republicans have waged a sustained campaign against alleged voter fraud over the past two years, despite scant evidence of fraud in the 2020 election. Election officials in battleground states are anticipating delayed results and protracted fights once the polls close Tuesday night.

Missouri officials on Friday denied the Justice Department’s request to conduct Election Day inspections under the Americans With Disabilities Act and Voting Rights Act. Secretary of State John R. Ashcroft (R) reiterated that stance in a meeting Monday.

He told The Washington Post that the Justice Department’s presence amounted to a bid to “bully a local election authority” and could “intimidate and suppress the vote.”

Ashcroft and Cole County Clerk Steve Korsmeyer (R) told federal officials that they would not be permitted to observe polling places Tuesday. On Tuesday, Justice Department observers were stationed outside polling places in Cole County, home to the state capital, Jefferson City.

“This is not the Voting Rights Act. This is the Americans With Disabilities Act. What’s next? They’re going to want to be at elections because they want to check that insulation in the building was purchased from China in the 1970s? Give me a break,” Ashcroft said in a phone interview.

Ashcroft, whose father, John Ashcroft, served as attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, compared Justice Department officials from the U.S. attorney’s office of the Western District of Missouri to “jackbooted thugs” and to armed individuals in Arizona who have been seen patrolling ballot drop boxes.

“I think we’ve already had lawsuits around the country about individuals around polling places,” Ashcroft said. “And they were told that they had to stay away from them because they could intimidate voters.” Justice Department officials last observed Missouri elections in 2016 at polling places in St. Louis.

In other parts of the country, including red-leaning Texas, state officials were welcoming Justice Department help in dealing with potential voting issues. Sam Taylor, a spokesman for Texas Secretary of State John Scott (R), said his office was working closely with the Justice Department to monitor voting in Beaumont, Tex., where a Black voter and the NAACP have alleged harassment of Black voters by White poll workers.

Separate from the election-monitors program, FBI special agents serving as election crime coordinators are on duty Tuesday in the bureau’s 56 field offices to receive voting-related complaints from the public, according to the Justice Department.

Employees in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division will also operate a hotline all day on Election Day, answering calls from people who spot possible violations of federal voting rights laws.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.