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Justice Seeks To Quell Voter Access Fears

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Justice Seeks To Quell Voter Access Fears


Justice Seeks To Quell Voter Access Fears

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This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. The Justice Department met civil rights groups yesterday to outline its plans for insuring smooth elections come November. The department says it's well-prepared and will deploy hundreds of federal monitors to polling stations. Some civil rights groups said they still have some concerns. Today the Senate will hold hearings on these efforts. NPR's Ari Shapiro has more.

ARI SHAPIRO: The Bush administration and civil rights groups have not always been simpatico on voting rights.

Mr. PETER ZAMORA (Washington, D.C., Regional Counsel, MALDEF): Partisan politics have been, it seems, often more of a consideration than enforcement of the law.

SHAPIRO: Peter Zamora works for MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. He attended yesterday's meeting at the Justice Department.

Mr. ZAMORA: There was a little bit of sort of wary circling, I think, of some of the advocates and some of the political appointees.

SHAPIRO: That's not literal circling. Department officials were on stage, civil rights advocates sat in the audience, including Deborah Vagins of the ACLU.

Ms. DEBORAH VAGINS (Policy Counsel for Civil Rights, ACLU): It did start off with Attorney General Michael 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, and he wanted to work to build confidence for American voters in the process.

SHAPIRO: Kristen Clarke is with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Ms. KRISTEN CLARKE (Assistant Counsel, Political Participation Group, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund): We've got to see the words backed up by action, backed up by substance. Otherwise the meetings would have been meaningless.

SHAPIRO: Clarke says Justice Department officials spent most of the time explaining voting laws. And people in the audience say this was not useful, they know voting rights laws by heart. And at the end, Kristen Clarke says, there was only time for about five questions.

Ms. CLARKE: Another hour or two probably would've allowed sufficient time for everybody to wrestle through the issues that they're concerned about.

SHAPIRO: The questions that did get answered gave some people reason to worry. For example, the Justice Department said federal prosecutors will monitor polling places. Deborah Vagins of the ACLU thinks their presence could keep voters away.

Ms. VAGINS: Our concern remains that in some small towns that have historic problems with intimidation, that maybe this isn't the best use of criminal prosecutors.

SHAPIRO: Vagins says the whole meeting had an air of sincerity, but also real problems. Grace Chung Becker is acting head of the civil rights division.

Ms. GRACE CHUNG BECKER (Acting Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice): We don't want to do anything - send monitors or observers out that would in any way intimidate the voters at the polls.

SHAPIRO: Becker held a conference call with reporters yesterday afternoon. She said prosecutors who monitor polls will be trained not to identify themselves as prosecutors in any way. Becker described this as an unprecedented election year.

Ms. BECKER: Record numbers of voters are expected at the polls this November 4.

SHAPIRO: She said yesterday's meeting will be the first of many conversations with civil rights groups leading up to Election Day.

Ms. BECKER: We provided all of our contact information with telephone numbers that they could call if they had any additional inquiries or any additional concerns. We certainly welcome speaking with them on other occasions. And we have in the past and expect to do so again in the future.

SHAPIRO: After the meeting with civil rights groups, Becker met with state and local law enforcement officials to discuss the same issues. Today, her audience is Congress. She may have to answer some of the questions civil rights groups did not get to ask her yesterday. Those groups have given lawmakers lists of issues that they think Becker still needs to address. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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