Justice Seeks To Quell Voter Access Fears

The Justice Department is rolling out a national plan for dealing with civil rights issues at polling places in an effort to make sure the November elections go smoothly.

To that end, Justice Department leaders are meeting with interest groups and congressional lawmakers.

On Monday, Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Grace Chung Becker, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, met with civil rights and law enforcement groups. On Tuesday, Becker is slated to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee; she will appear before the House Judiciary Committee soon.

Civil rights leaders who attended Monday's meeting gave the Justice Department mixed reviews.

Deborah Vagins of the ACLU said she was encouraged by "Mukasey coming in and indicating to us that it was his highest priority in the next two months to make sure that the election was a smooth one." Overall, Vagins said, the event "had an air of sincerity, but also real problems."

One major complaint is that department officials left little time for dialogue with the audience. According to several meeting attendees, Justice Department representatives spent most of the two-hour meeting describing voting laws that the activists already knew. They left time for only about five questions at the end, civil rights advocates said.

"Another hour or two probably would have allowed sufficient time for everybody to wrestle through the issues that they're concerned about," said Kristen Clarke of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

In the past, civil rights groups have criticized the Justice Department's handling of voting rights issues.

Peter Zamora of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund says "partisan politics have been more of a consideration than enforcement of the law" at the Justice Department.

Meeting attendees were also concerned about some of the information Justice Department officials provided. For example, Becker said federal prosecutors will monitor polling places. Vagins said she fears that the presence of federal prosecutors in "some small towns that have had historic problems with intimidation" will keep away voters.

Becker responded that prosecutors who monitor polling places will not wear badges, carry guns, or in any other way publicly identify as criminal prosecutors.

Becker described 2008 as an unprecedented election year. "Record numbers of voters are expected at the polls this Nov. 4," she said.

Civil rights activists note that although the Justice Department mobilizes poll monitors every election year, prosecutors have been less aggressive about investigating and prosecuting instances of voter intimidation and deception.

"We've got to see the words backed up by action, backed up by substance. Otherwise, the meetings would have been meaningless," Clarke said.

Becker told reporters in a conference call after the meeting that she intends this to be the first of many meetings with civil rights groups.

"We provided all of our contact information," she said. "We certainly welcome speaking with them on other occasions, as we have in the past and expect to do so again in the future."

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