Florida pushes back against DOJ election monitors inside polling sites

State election officials, led by Secretary of State Cord Byrd, stated in its letter that Florida is dispatching “its own” staffers to watch over the elections in the three counties to “ensure that there is no interference with the voting process.”

Election officials say the move is not meant to be “confrontational” as they join with Missouri in protesting the action by DOJ.

“Both the state of Missouri, the state of Florida, when they told us they wanted to go into our polling places, we wanted to make it clear that those are places for election workers and voters — not for anyone else,” Byrd told reporters Tuesday.

Earlier in the week, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, posted an email sent by Department of Justice officials to a county clerk. There, an assistant U.S. attorney said a pair of teams would be visiting polling sites in Cole County and would have a few questions for election officials, promising to try to “minimize the time we spend at each site.”

The DOJ is sending watchers to polling sites in Democratic strongholds of Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties in Florida as part of an expanded effort in 64 jurisdictions nationwide to ensure compliance with federal voting rights laws. The number of sites this year is a notable increase from the presidential election two years ago when DOJ sent monitors to 44 jurisdictions in 18 states.

Missouri’s Ashcroft said the local clerk “rightfully declined” the DOJ’s request to visit, arguing it violated state law. The Missouri Independent reported on Monday that Cole County officials received an earlier letter saying the Department of Justice has received complaints about a lack of accessible voting machines in past elections, which are required under federal law.

The Justice Department declined to comment on the letter Tuesday from Florida morning. But a spokesperson did say that DOJ officials will monitor outside polling locations in Florida. And a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office in Missouri also told The Eagle, a local radio station, that DOJ monitors would not enter the building.

Byrd said Tuesday that the DOJ can “certainly” watch polls from outside, as they have in previous election cycles.

“They wanted to be inside the polling places, and they couldn’t provide a reason to be there, nor any statutory authority for them to be there,” Byrd said. “So, we asked them that they respect Florida law.”

“This is not to be confrontational in any way.”

David Becker, a former attorney in the Department of Justice’s civil rights division who now leads the Center for Election Innovation and Research, said that he thought states trying to freeze out federal monitors was unusual.

“I probably personally observed dozens of elections, including primaries … and I never had a problem with it,” he said at a press conference. “I think it is somewhat unusual for states like Missouri and Florida to make the legal claim, which I think is somewhat dubious, that federal observers or monitors would not be allowed to enter the polling places.”

Becker compared federal monitors’ roles to being highly trained “flies on the wall,” saying if something raises a concern they typically do not get involved at the polling place and step outside to speak to officials.

He expressed some concern about future resistance to Department of Justice monitors. “I would hope that in future, with strong communication between the states, the counties and the DOJ, that this can be avoided,” he said.