WASHINGTON – In advance of the first presidential election in 50 years without a fully operable Voting Rights Act (VRA), an American civil rights group is urging the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to expand its election monitoring mission in the United States and to target resources to states where voter discrimination and intimidation is most likely.
In a letter sent to the OSCE from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the group explains that, “A confluence of factors has made the right to vote more vulnerable to racial discrimination than at any time in recent history. The need for additional election observers is paramount. The unprecedented weakening of the Voting Rights Act has led to a tidal wave of voter discrimination efforts nationwide and has required the United States to drastically scale back its own election monitoring program. In addition, a leading presidential candidate who has made the demonization of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities a hallmark of his campaign has recently urged supporters to challenge voters at polling sites nationwide.”
The OSCE is an international multi-lateral organization that sends election monitors to its participating countries, including the United States. The OSCE has sent observers to every presidential election since 2002 and intends to send 500 observers for 2016.
In addition to expanding its mission, the group is urging the OSCE “to target its resources to states that have adopted discriminatory restrictions or will likely see enhanced voter intimidation efforts, including places like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Texas.”
“The right to vote is more vulnerable now than at any time in the past 50 years,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Additional monitors can never replace what we lost when the VRA was gutted but we have to use every possible means to ensure the integrity of this election isn’t compromised by racial discrimination and intimidation. We now have to fight in the courts and at ballot box for every voter and even our nation’s best and most well-organized efforts will not meet the demand we’re confronted with. Congress needs to restore the VRA immediately.”
The letter is copied below.
August 20, 2016
Michael Georg Link, Director
Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights/
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
Dear Director Link:
On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an organization committed to ensuring civil rights, including voting rights, for all Americans, we commend the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for observing the 2016 election in the United States, as it has done in the previous three presidential election cycles.
We write now to emphasize that the OSCE’s plans to monitor the upcoming U.S. presidential election will be more essential than ever before and to encourage the OSCE to greatly expand its election monitoring mission in the United States for this election.
A confluence of factors has made the right to vote more vulnerable to racial discrimination than at any time in recent history. The need for additional election observers is paramount. The unprecedented weakening of the Voting Rights Act has led to a tidal wave of voter discrimination efforts nationwide and has required the United States to drastically scale back its own election monitoring program. In addition, a leading presidential candidate who has made the demonization of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities a hallmark of his campaign has recently urged supporters to challenge voters at polling sites nationwide.[i]
This will be the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. Because of that, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) will not be able to send objective election monitors to protect the rights of voters in the vast majority of places that were once covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.[ii] This means that in the states and localities most likely to enact laws and procedures to disenfranchise voters of color, our federal government will be unable to monitor its own election, making your work even more critical.
Election monitoring is an important component of our democratic process and serves as an additional means of protecting the rights of those who are most likely to be disenfranchised and least able to advocate for their right to vote. But the Department of Justice has determined that the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidated the part of the Voting Rights Act that authorized it to send election monitors.
In the 2004 general election, the Department of Justice sent 1,463 federal observers to monitor 55 elections in 30 jurisdictions in 14 different states. Because of the Shelby decision, there will be virtually no election observers deployed in 2016.[iii]
According to a Democracy Journal column by a former Department of Justice official,[iv] “There are countless examples of the federal observer program being used to protect voters from racial discrimination at the polls,” including:
· In 2012, federal observers monitoring an election in Shelby County, Alabama—the jurisdiction that sued to be removed from VRA preclearance in Shelby County v. Holder—documented the closing of doors on African-American voters before the voting hours were over, as well as voting officials using racial epithets to describe voters.
· That same year, observers were sent to Alameda and Riverside counties in California to gather information regarding reports of serious failures to provide language assistance to voters who needed it.
· In 2011, a federal court relied on observer reports to conclude that Sandoval County, New Mexico, had effectively disenfranchised members of the Keres tribe.
· In 2010, during the early voting period in Harris County, Texas, federal observers documented intimidation and harassment targeting Latino and African-American voters by an organized, well-funded Texas-based organization with clear partisan electoral goals.
Because of the Shelby decision, none of these instances of voter discrimination would likely be prevented or stopped in 2016.
The 2016 presidential campaign has seen a resurgence of bigoted rhetoric against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and a former leader of a violent White supremacist hate group, the Ku Klux Klan, is a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Now a presidential candidate — who has made demonizing minorities a central part of his campaign strategy — is encouraging his supporters to challenge voters at polls in “certain sections” of Pennsylvania, an apparent reference to 59 mostly African-American precincts.[v] Efforts at voter intimidation stemming back to the mid-1970s resulted in a federal court banning the Republican Party from engaging in challenge and intimidation efforts aimed at voters of color.[vi]
Non-governmental civil rights and voting rights organizations will also monitor the election where possible, but even the most well-funded and well-organized efforts can’t replace the loss of federal election observers or combat a nationwide effort to intimidate voters of color. Voters of color need every possible protection available to them to ensure they can register and cast a ballot. Your ability to shine an international spotlight on this situation is an important component of that protection.
A nationwide litigation effort since the Shelby decision has sought to blunt the tidal wave of voter discrimination laws that were enacted by states and cities. Recent court victories turning back a few of these laws have proven that these efforts are widespread, require massive investments of time and money to litigate, and intentionally discriminate against voters of color. It took years of litigation to strike down intentionally discriminatory laws, meaning countless voters have already been denied the right to cast ballots in the 2014 mid-term election and in this year’s presidential primaries. And efforts to ensure that local election officials are complying with those court orders is one important aspect of election observation.
But for every discriminatory statewide law that can be litigated for years, there are countless city, county, and school board changes to voting districts, precinct locations, poll hours, early voting, and new barriers to registering and voting that will never be challenged in court.
Accordingly, we urge the OSCE to greatly expand its election monitoring program in the United States and to target its resources to states that have adopted discriminatory restrictions or will likely see enhanced voter intimidation efforts, including places like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Texas.
We welcome the opportunity to work with the OSCE Election Observation Mission and its international monitors to ensure a free and fair election in the United States. We are available to meet with you and your team at your earliest convenience.
Katarzyna Jarosiewicz-Wargan, First Deputy Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights
Alexander Shlyk, Head of the Elections Department of ODIHR
Richard Lappin, Deputy Head of the Elections Department of ODIHR
Wade Henderson, President & CEO
Nancy Zirkin, Executive Vice President