The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 11, 2012

Justice Department to monitor polling places in Texas


Los Angeles Times (MCT)

HOUSTON — Local elections in three Texas areas will be monitored Saturday by the Justice Department to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Federal observers will monitor polling places in Dallas, Galveston and Jasper counties, according to a Justice Department statement released Friday.

“Observers will watch and record activities during voting hours at polling locations in these counties, and Civil Rights Division attorneys will coordinate the federal activities and maintain contact with local election officials,” the statement said.

Galveston election officials said they met with federal monitors Friday. Mitchell Rivard, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment about why the three areas were singled out for monitoring.

The East Texas county of Jasper, and the county seat of the same name, became infamous after the racially motivated 1998 dragging death of a local African-American man, James Byrd Jr. The killing led to the creation of the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Earlier this year, a voter registration group sued Galveston and Texas elections officials for impeding its efforts to register local voters.

The Voting Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the election process on the basis of race, color or membership in a minority language group. Under the act, the Justice Department is authorized to send federal observers to areas certified by the attorney general or by a federal court order.

Each year, the Justice Department deploys hundreds of federal observers and staff to monitor elections across the country, including elections earlier this year in Illinois and Wisconsin.

The department has monitored Texas elections in the past, but the latest effort comes amid increased federal scrutiny of the state’s voting practices.

Texas remains locked in legal battles concerning both redistricting and the state’s voter identification law.

Michael Li, a Dallas lawyer who has been blogging about both issues, called the Justice Department action “fairly unusual.”

“They’re being a bit more zealous,” Li said.

But that’s not surprising, he said, given what U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said about Texas, including during a visit to Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson Library in December when he spoke about voting rights.

“The attorney general has said he was going to keep a close eye on Texas and he’s come down here and he’s made that very clear,” Li said.

A San Antonio court pushed Texas’ primary back to May 29 from March 6 after complaints that a new electoral map drawn by Republicans violated the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against blacks and Latinos. State leaders are awaiting a ruling on the original maps from a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C.

In Washington earlier this week, another three-judge panel handling the Texas voter ID case (including one of the judges on the redistricting panel) ordered the state’s attorney general to stop delaying the hand-over of evidence in the case, which they said could delay the trial and affect the state’s November general election.