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Why Florida and Missouri Republicans won’t let federal observers in polling places

It looks like a political stunt.

Two people walking into a polling place.
Hillsborough County residents cast their voting ballots at a polling precinct on November 8, 2022, in Tampa, Florida.
Octavio Jones/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

State and local Republican officials in Florida and Missouri will not allow officials from the Justice Department into polling places to monitor compliance with federal laws, in a controversy that at first blush seems like a political stunt from the Republicans involved.

In every recent general election, the Justice Department has sent some personnel to selected counties and cities to monitor whether federal voting rights laws are being upheld. The DOJ did this in 2016 under Obama, in 2018 and 2020 under Trump, and are now doing so in 2022 under Biden.

As in previous years, locations on the list include some key counties in swing states like Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, as well as some uncompetitive states and cities. The Justice Department did not explain why any particular jurisdiction made it on to the list. But the general topics they could be looking into include:

  • Are racial or ethnic minorities being discriminated against?
  • In areas with many non-English speakers, are the Voting Rights Act’s language requirements being met?
  • Are there accommodations and accessibility for voters with disabilities?
  • Are provisional ballots being properly offered in accordance with the Help America Vote Act?
  • Is there voter intimidation?

Now, some states, including Missouri and Florida, do have laws about who is permitted inside local polling places. Typically, this isn’t a problem because state or local governments enter into consent decrees with the Justice Department, giving DOJ observers permission to enter.

The issue this year is that in Missouri and Florida, some local Republican officials have not granted that permission.

According to the Missouri Independent, the DOJ told local officials they had received complaints alleging Cole County, in previous elections, had not provided voting machines that were sufficiently accessible to disabled voters. They requested to send personnel this year to monitor compliance.

But Cole County Clerk Steve Korsmeyer said he would not allow DOJ observers into polling places. And Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft backed him, even characterizing the DOJ’s proposal as “intimidating Missouri voters.”

Then, Florida made a similar move. Secretary of State Cord Byrd said the state would not repeat previous years’ consent agreements that would have let DOJ observers inside polling places, but that they were free to observe from outside.

According to the New York Times, Byrd claimed this wasn’t a political move because in 2020, DOJ observers weren’t allowed in the polling places either. But that was because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2018 and previous years, the state had no issue with allowing observers.

There likely isn’t anything federal officials can do to get these observers inside these polling places Tuesday. But if they have or later obtain evidence that laws were broken, they can investigate these jurisdictions. And if voters believe they are being discriminated against or that laws are being violated in some way, the Justice Department has contact information available on their website.

Still, the Republicans’ actions alone don’t necessarily suggest they’re up to any malfeasance inside these polling places — after all, local observers can still enter, it’s just the feds who are being barred. More likely is that local Republicans want an excuse to grandstand against the Biden administration, and they found one.

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