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Elections 2016

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Legal and Minority Groups Poised to Ensure Access to Polls

Beyond usual administrative problems, advocate warns of ‘overly aggressive challenges … voter intimidation’

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Concerned about the potential for aggressive challenges of urban voters on Election Day, minority and legal groups said they will coordinate efforts to ensure normal access to the polls in four New Jersey cities.  

"There's the possibility not only for the usual confusion and administrative problems, but also for overly aggressive challenges of voters and even voter intimidation," said Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the Newark-based New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.  

The program includes a hotline, voter information, and legal representation as needed for voters in Newark, Jersey City, Trenton, and Camden, according to Haygood. Although he and other participants described the effort as nonpartisan, it follows calls by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for his supporters to monitor polling places in a number of cities.  

Following an emergency hearing on Saturday, a federal judge rejected motions by the Democratic National Committee accusing its Republican counterpart of violating a 1981 consent decree, implemented in New Jersey after the state GOP was charged with attempts to suppress turnout by minority voters.  

On Wednesday, a leading Democrat, state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), called on state election officials, including the secretary of state and attorney general, "to take all necessary steps to ensure that every eligible voter has the opportunity to freely exercise their right to self-determination."

Neither the department of state, which includes the division of elections, nor the Republican State Committee responded to requests for comment.  

Trump has repeatedly suggested the presidential election is rigged and warned of widespread voter fraud, particularly in reliably Democratic urban communities. The latter idea has been embraced in some states, which have adopted more stringent voter identification requirements. But it also has generated criticism from some state-level Republicans, who say electoral systems are clean.  

On Thursday, a Pennsylvania judge rebuffed a Republican effort to overturn a state law there requiring official poll watchers to serve in their home counties. The Trump campaign hoped to shift 300 watchers into Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Alt-right groups connected with "Stop the Steal," a pro-Trump effort, have said they still hope to send citizen observers into Philadelphia.  

"This will be the first presidential election in 50 years not covered by the full authority of the Voting Rights Act," which barred states from erecting obstacles to minority voters, Haygood noted. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down some provisions in 2013, saying they were no longer necessary.  

Although the provisions applied primarily to racist practices in the states of the former Confederacy, Haygood said their elimination sent a general message that could encourage renewed intimidation of minority voters. In that atmosphere, Tuesday requires "all hands on deck" for groups concerned about voting rights, he said.

Most would have been making some effort anyway, but have agreed to coordinate, said Andrea McChristian, the institute's associate general counsel.  

"The Institute for Social Justice is doing poll watching. The NAACP has been doing voter registration and will be doing get out the vote," she said. "The Garden State Bar Association, which is minority lawyers, will be poll watching."  

The Latino Action Network and New Jersey Black Issues Convention have been providing voter education and will also assist at the polls, she said. The constitutional rights clinic at Rutgers Law School will again provide law professors and third-year students to assist challenged voters in Newark.  

The Lowenstein Sandler law firm also will be supporting the legal aspect, hosting a hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE, which will provide information about polling places and verifying registration in advance, and take reports of problems on Election Day.  

As much as anticipating trouble, Haygood said the organizations "want voters to do their homework." That means knowing basics like where to vote, having identification, and understanding their rights, he said.    

“Voting is the foundation of our democracy, which is why we are joining this effort to ensure that every voter is able to vote,” said Richard T. Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, in a statement. “During this and every election cycle we must lift our voices and cast our votes to show that our lives matter, our votes count.”

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