‘The most chaotic election for people of color in 50 years,’ activist predicts

Residents arrive to cast their ballots early for the general election in downtown Athens, Ga., Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.
Residents arrive to cast their ballots early for the general election in downtown Athens, Ga., Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. AP

Voting rights advocates are urging state election officials nationwide to be on the lookout for efforts to disenfranchise, intimidate and discriminate against minority voters in next month’s general election.

They say a weakened Voting Rights Act, incendiary campaign rhetoric and confusion over controversial state laws that restrict voting opportunities have created a perfect storm for Election Day problems, particularly for Hispanic, Arab-American, Muslim and African-American voters, said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national organizations.

“State election officials must address these unprecedented threats head-on by creating and publicizing clear plans to prevent intimidation and discrimination, and to make it unequivocally clear to the voters they serve that the elections they oversee will be safe, fair and free,” Henderson said in a statement.

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Nearly 90 civil rights and voting advocacy groups made that argument on Wednesday, sending letters to the nation’s 50 secretary of state offices calling for their special attention to the tense atmosphere surrounding what Henderson called “the most racially bigoted election in generations.”

In Mississippi, Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said recently that trained election commissioners, circuit clerks, staff employees and others would help monitor polls. But the state isn’t taking any additional measures.

“This is the same thing we do for any election: presidential, gubernatorial or an election of the local sheriff,” he said. “I see no kind of disturbance.”

North Carolina is taking a different approach. After a federal appeals court struck down the state’s voter ID law as unfairly targeting African-American voters, the state elections board is working with law enforcement officials to explain and inform stakeholders about North Carolina election laws, including a requirement that advocacy groups stay within designated areas when monitoring activities at polling locations.

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The moves come as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump asks his supporters to act as untrained, partisan observers at polling places “in certain areas.” That could create episodes of voter intimidation and unjust voter challenges, the advocates say.

In addition, conservative groups like True the Vote are training election observers to monitor for possible voter fraud.

“We are on the precipice of the most chaotic election for people of color in 50 years,” Henderson said in a Wednesday conference call with reporters.

We are on the precipice of the most chaotic election for people of color in 50 years.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

Compounding the problem is the Justice Department’s inability – after more than 50 years – to deploy hundreds of special election observers who can monitor Election Day activity at polling places to help ensure compliance with federal election laws.

A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision required that a court order be issued before the special observers could be dispatched. In their place next month, the Justice Department will deploy a smaller number of department attorneys and other personnel who – unlike the observers – must get permission from local election officials before they can enter polling sites in 23 states where they will be sent.

Voting rights advocates fear that potential loss of access could give rise to problems, particularly in nine states with long histories of voting discrimination.

To help ensure the integrity of the vote, the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition is recruiting 4,500 legal volunteers and 2,500 grass-roots volunteers to monitor activity at mostly minority polling locations in 29 states, said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a national civil rights group that runs the coalition.

The coalition hotline (866-OUR-VOTE) has already fielded more than 42,000 calls from voters nationwide. But unlike previous years, most have been to report some sort of problem rather than to answer a question about the election and voter registration process, Clarke said.

The Arab American Institute will also operate a live hotline on Election Day (844-418-1682) to provide voter assistance in Arabic and English.

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials will operate a bilingual hotline (888-839-8682) to help resolve disputes or assist Hispanics who think their voting rights may have been violated.

Jessica Campisi contributed to this report.