US justice department strikes out election race ban on voter fraud probes

By on 13/10/2020
Throughout his campaign, president Trump has accused the United States Postal Service of committing or enabling voting fraud. (Official White House photo by Tia Dufour via flickr).

Federal prosecutors at the US Department of Justice (DOJ) have been given the green light to publicly discuss investigations into voting fraud in the run-up to the US presidential election, upending a decades-long policy designed to avoid the risk that they distort election results.

ProPublica reported last week that, according to an internal email sent by an official in the Public Integrity Section, US attorneys’ offices will now be allowed to take public investigative steps before the polls close if they suspect election fraud – even if those actions risk affecting the outcome of the election.

The email announced “an exception to the general non-interference with elections policy”. The new exemption, the email stated, applies to instances in which “the integrity of any component of the federal government is implicated by election offenses within the scope of the policy including but not limited to misconduct by federal officials or employees administering an aspect of the voting process through the United States Postal Service, the Department of Defense or any other federal department or agency”.

There is no evidence that the Trump administration was involved in weakening the policy. Justice Department spokesman Matt Lloyd said that “no political appointee had any role in directing, preparing or sending this email”. He said that changing the policy, which is thought to date back to the 1980s or earlier, is part of a routine process: “Career prosecutors in the Public Integrity Section of the Department’s Criminal Division routinely send out guidance to the field during election season. This email was simply part of that ongoing process of providing routine guidance regarding election-related matters.”

However, commentators have pointed out that throughout his campaign the president has accused the two agencies expressly mentioned in the DOJ email of committing or enabling voting fraud. Trump has talked of voter fraud, and repeatedly refused to say in advance that he’ll accept the election result. He also said at a press conference in August that he was blocking funding for the beleaguered United States Postal Service, which is facing bankruptcy, because he is against the practice of ‘mail-in voting’ in which states automatically send mail ballots to registered voters. He claims the practice is a vehicle for voter fraud.

Pennsylvania probe

News of the exception to the policy follows the decision of a US attorney in Pennsylvania to publicly announce that the DOJ is investigating whether local elections officials illegally discarded nine mail-in military ballots. According to The Washington Post, attorney general William Barr personally briefed Trump on the case before it was publicly announced, and Trump has since used the example to support his claims of mail-in voter fraud. Though the Pennsylvania case probe is ongoing, the state’s top election official said that early indications pointed to an error, rather than fraud.

Justin Levitt, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s civil rights division, expressed concern that the department could be encouraging prosecutors to make more public announcements about incomplete investigations, as they did in the Pennsylvania case. “It alarms me that the DOJ would want to authorize more of the same in and around the election,” he told ProPublica. “It’s incredibly painful for me to say, but given what we’ve seen recently, Americans shouldn’t trust DOJ announcements right now.”

A number of other experts believe that Trump and Barr are laying the groundwork to claim that the election was rigged if the president loses. The Justice Department could “build a narrative, despite the absence of any evidence, of fraud in mail-in voting so Trump can challenge the election results if he loses,” Joyce Vance, a former US attorney in Alabama under the Obama administration, told The New York Times.

“They’ve told us this is their strategy, and we’re watching them implement it,” Vance added.

Accusations against Barr

At the start of the month, 1,600 former DOJ lawyers wrote an open letter in which they accused Barr of seeking to boost Trump’s re-election efforts, in part by backing up his claims of mail-in voter fraud. The attorney general said in an interview with CNN, for example, that the practice is “very open to fraud and coercion” and likened it to “playing with fire”.  

“We fear that attorney general Barr intends to use the DOJ’s vast law enforcement powers to undermine our most fundamental democratic value: free and fair elections,” the group of former DOJ lawyers said in the letter.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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