Buena Vista County in northwest Iowa is among 35 localities where U.S. Department of Justice personnel will "monitor compliance with the federal voting rights laws" on November 6, the Justice Department revealed this morning. Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned, "fraud in the voting process will not be tolerated. Fraud also corrupts the integrity of the ballot.”
There is no documented incident of voter fraud in Buena Vista County, just one "accident involving human error" in 2016. So why would the DOJ single out this area for scrutiny?
Like the other jurisdictions the DOJ is targeting, Buena Vista has a large non-white population. Voting rights advocates saw Sessions' announcement as an effort to intimidate eligible voters.
Many immigrants have settled in the Storm Lake area during the past two decades, making Buena Vista one of the most diverse Iowa counties outside a major metro area. According to U.S. Census Bureau data from July 2017, 25.8 percent of the county's 20,110 residents are Latino, 9.2 percent are Asian, 3.5 percent are African Americans, 1.6 percent are Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, 1.5 percent are two or more races, and 0.6 percent are American Indian. Non-Hispanic whites make up just 59.5 percent of the Buena Vista population, compared to 85.7 percent of Iowans.
The full list of counties the DOJ will monitor tomorrow includes many with large immigrant populations and several containing American Indian reservations. Dominic Holden of Buzzfeed News asked about the selection criteria and received an evasive statement on background citing "a number of factors, including information provided by state/local election officials and communities." I am seeking comment on whether Secretary of State Paul Pate or anyone on his staff had raised concerns about Buena Vista County or requested the DOJ to monitor events there.
In his written statement, Sessions vowed to use "every lawful tool that we have, both civil and criminal, to protect the rights of millions of Americans to cast their vote unimpeded at one of more than 170,000 precincts across America." But singling out racially diverse communities with no history of voter fraud suggests a different motive. From Holden's report for Buzzfeed:
“I have not seen DOJ send out that kind of threatening message before in its pre-election press releases,” Wendy Weiser, a voting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, part of the NYU School of Law, told BuzzFeed News.
“It is my view that this kind of threatening language from the Department of Justice right before an election is inappropriate and can be interpreted as scaring voters in the targeted jurisdictions,” she said. [...]
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told BuzzFeed News she was concerned both with Sessions’ “fraud” rhetoric and that some hot spots in Georgia aren’t being monitored. [...]
“Attorney General Jeff Sessions does not have his eyes set on voter suppression and last minute intimidation, but is instead exploiting this moment to push a false narrative about voter fraud,” said Clarke.
Buena Vista is one of the 39 counties in Iowa's fourth Congressional district, where Representative Steve King faces a surprisingly tough race against J.D. Scholten, in part because of King's many bigoted statements about immigration. King and Sessions have long been political allies. In a guest column for the Washington Times in June, the Iowa Republican called the attorney general "the most underappreciated member of Mr. Trump’s Cabinet. With little fanfare, Mr. Sessions is quietly and unassumingly building one of the most successful records of conservative accomplishment ever seen at the DOJ."
Any DOJ action that frightens non-white voters can only help King and other Republicans on the ticket. Adding to the atmosphere of intimidation, President Donald Trump tweeted on November 5, "Law Enforcement has been strongly notified to watch closely for any ILLEGAL VOTING which may take place in Tuesday’s Election (or Early Voting). Anyone caught will be subject to the Maximum Criminal Penalties allowed by law. Thank you!"
Trump has long lied about alleged illegal voting in the 2016 presidential election, even though a large body of research has shown voter fraud is almost nonexistent. Only ten of nearly 1.6 million Iowans who voted in the 2016 presidential election may have cast improper ballots, Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press last year.
Full text of November 5 press release from U.S. Department of Justice:
Justice Department to Monitor Compliance with Federal Voting Rights Laws on Election Day
The Justice Department today announced its Election Day plans for the Nov. 6, 2018 general election. The Civil Rights Division will monitor compliance with the federal voting rights laws by deploying personnel to 35 jurisdictions in 19 states.
“Voting rights are constitutional rights, and they’re part of what it means to be an American,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. “The Department of Justice has been entrusted with an indispensable role in securing these rights for the people of this nation. This year we are using every lawful tool that we have, both civil and criminal, to protect the rights of millions of Americans to cast their vote unimpeded at one of more than 170,000 precincts across America. Citizens of America control this country through their selection of their governmental officials at the ballot box. Likewise, fraud in the voting process will not be tolerated. Fraud also corrupts the integrity of the ballot.”
State and local governments have primary responsibility for administering elections in the United States. The Civil Rights Division is charged with enforcing the federal voting rights laws that protect the rights of all citizens to access the ballot on Election Day. Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the Division has regularly monitored all kinds of elections in the field around the country throughout every year to protect the rights of all voters, and not just in federal general elections. On Nov. 6, the Division again will be monitoring in the field around the country.
On Election Day, the Division staff members will be available all day by telephone to receive complaints from the public related to possible violations of the federal voting rights laws (1-800-253-3931 toll free or 202-307-2767 or TTY 202-305-0082). In addition, individuals may also report complaints by fax to 202-307-3961, by email to email@example.com (link sends e-mail), and by a complaint form on the Department’s website: www.justice.gov/crt/votercomplaint.
Allegations of election fraud are handled by the 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices across the country and the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section. Complaints may be directed to the local U.S. Attorneys’ Office or local FBI office. A list of U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and their telephone numbers can be found at www.justice.gov/usao/find-your-united-states-attorney. A list of FBI offices and their telephone numbers can be found at www.fbi.gov/contact-us.
Complaints related to disruption at a polling place should always be reported immediately to local election officials (including officials in the polling place). Complaints related to violence, threats of violence or intimidation at a polling place should be reported immediately to local police authorities by calling 911. These complaints should also be reported to the Department after local authorities have been contacted.
On Election Day, the Civil Rights Division plans to deploy personnel to 35 jurisdictions in 19 states to monitor for compliance with the federal voting rights laws:
Bethel Census Area, Alaska;
Dillingham Census Area, Alaska;
Kusilvak Census Area, Alaska;
Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska;
Apache County, Arizona;
Cochise County, Arizona;
Maricopa County, Arizona;
Navajo County, Arizona;
Sacramento County, California;
San Mateo County, California;
DeSoto County, Florida;
Palm Beach County, Florida;
Pinellas County, Florida;
Fulton County, Georgia;
Gwinnett County, Georgia;
Buena Vista County, Iowa;
Ford County, Kansas;
Clark County, Nevada;
Washoe County, Nevada;
Middlesex County, New Jersey;
Union County, New Jersey;
Erie County, New York;
Benson County, North Dakota;
Rolette County, North Dakota;
Texas County, Oklahoma;
Lehigh County, Pennsylvania;
Pawtucket, Rhode Island;
Buffalo County, South Dakota;
Harris County, Texas;
Tarrant County, Texas;
Waller County, Texas;
San Juan County, Utah; and
Fairfax County, Virginia.
The Civil Rights Division will gather information on, among other things, whether voters are subject to different voting qualifications or procedures on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group; whether jurisdictions are complying with the language minority provisions of the Voting Rights Act; whether jurisdictions permit a voter to receive assistance by a person of his or her choice if the voter has a disability or is unable to read or write; whether jurisdictions provide polling locations and voting systems allowing voters with disabilities to cast a private and independent ballot; whether jurisdictions comply with the voter registration list requirements of the National Voter Registration Act; and whether jurisdictions comply with the provisional ballot requirements of the Help America Vote Act. Division personnel will also maintain contact with local election officials.
The Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section enforces the civil provisions of a wide range of federal statutes that protect the right to vote including the Voting Rights Act, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, the National Voter Registration Act, the Help America Vote Act, and the Civil Rights Acts. The Division’s Disability Rights Section enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure that persons with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote. Information about the Americans with Disabilities Act and about how to file a disability related complaint can be found at www.ada.gov. The Division’s Criminal Section enforces federal criminal statutes that prohibit voter intimidation and voter suppression based on race, color, national origin or religion.
Last week, the Justice Department announced efforts to ensure that all qualified voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots and have their votes counted free of discrimination, intimidation or fraud in the election process. More information about the federal voting rights laws is available on the Civil Rights Division’s website at www.justice.gov/crt/voting-section.