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Tuesday, September 9, 2008
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Transcript of Conference Call with Grace Chung Becker, Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Regarding Department’s Efforts to Ensure Free and Fair Elections


3:00 P.M. EDT

SCOT MONTREY: I am Scot Montrey. I do Media Relations here for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, along with my colleague, Jamie Hais, who a lot of you already know. We get a lot of calls from reporters and other folks asking essentially what’s the plan for protecting voting rights up to and including Election Day. Earlier today, Attorney General Mukasey, Acting Assistant Attorney General Grace Chung Becker, who is here with me today, and a number of other senior staff met with dozens of civil rights groups as well as some state and local officials to answer that exact question – What is our plan? Because this is an issue of no small public interest, Grace is now here to do the same for you and to take your questions. Just one quick disclaimer since we have limited time, we would really like to stay focused on the voting rights issue and not wander off into unrelated topics. If you have any other separate questions, Jamie or I would be happy to help you out with the call. With that, let me introduce Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, Grace Chung-Becker.

ACTING ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL BECKER: Thank you for that introduction and thank you all for calling in this afternoon. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you about the Division’s record and its role in preparing for the 2008 General Election. This is an unprecedented Election Year. We know that voters are registering in record numbers in states across the nation and record numbers of voters are expected at the polls this November 4th.

Over the past several months, representatives of the Justice Department have frequently met with members of Congress, members of Civil Rights groups and state and local governments to discuss concerns and questions about the upcoming election and to address the Civil Rights Division’s efforts in preparing for this election cycle.

In fact, early this morning as Scott mentioned, Attorney General Mukasey and I met with leaders of several dozens of Civil Rights groups as well as national organizations representing state and local officials, secretaries of state and Attorney General offices from across the country. My colleagues and I find these types of meeting invaluable. Today for example, there were several issues raised by groups, which we believe, can and should be addressed this election season. We will do our utmost to take these concerns into account as we continue our election preparation plans. The Department is providing as much outreach as possible to remain transparent in its endeavors and to maintain an ongoing dialogue with interested parties as Election Day approaches.

To that end I would like to share with you a synopsis of the Department’s efforts thus far in future plans to ensure a free and fair election this November. As you well know, our Constitution and the Federal laws provide the states with the primary responsibility for the method and manner of elections. The Justice Department has a limited but extremely important role to play in ensuring that elections are fair and just.

The Civil Rights Division has spent the last seven years vigorously engaged in the enforcement of the Federal laws that protect voting rights. These laws include The Voting Rights Act of 1965, The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, The Help America Vote Act of 2002 and The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986.

The voting section has accrued an impressive record in the last several years and an example of our strident efforts are the 18 new lawsuits we filed in calendar year 2006, double the average number of lawsuits filed annually in the preceding 30 years. A significant part of the Division’s work to protect voting rights is our Election Monitoring Program, which is among the most effective means of ensuring that Federal Voting Rights are respected on Election Day. Thus far during calendar year 2008, 364 Federal observers and 148 Department of Justice personnel have been sent to monitor 47 elections in 43 jurisdictions in 17 states.

On November 4th, the Justice Department will implement a comprehensive program to help ensure valid access. As in previous years, we will coordinate with hundreds of Federal Government employees in counties, cities and towns across the country to ensure access to the polls as required by our nation’s Civil Rights laws.

On Election Day, Department personnel here in Washington will stand ready with numerous phone lines available to handle calls from citizens with election complaints, as well as an Internet base mechanism for reporting problems. We will have personnel at the Call Center who are affluent in Spanish and the Language Interpretation Service to provide translators in other languages. The Department remains committed in both words and action to ensure that we effectively implement our responsibilities not only during this election year, but for future elections as well. The Civil Rights Division will continue to protect vigorously the voting rights of all Americans and with that, I would be happy to take any questions that you may have. Thank you.

OPERATOR: The first question comes from Evan Perez of the Wall Street Journal.QUESTION: Hi! Can you hear me?MS. BECKER: Yes I can.

QUESTION: Hi! I just wondered if you could give me a sense of what the top priority you see for the November election from the perspective of the Department? Is it about access? Is it vote fraud? I know there are different aspects to different parts of the law that you are responsible for enforcing, so if you would give me a sense of what the priorities are?

MS. BECKER: Thank you for that question. Attorney General Mukasey, when he spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee, indicated that valid access and opening up the vote and voter fraud were two sides of the same coin and he indicated that was a very valuable coin, it was protecting the right to vote which is a very fundamental right. Our focus here in the Civil Rights Division is on one side of that coin and that is the valid access side of the coin. There are certainly vote fraud prosecutions that occur and those are typically handled by the 93 U.S. Attorney offices in consultation with the Public Integrity Section of the Criminal Division. But I am here today to talk about valid access and that is certainly a priority for us here in the Civil Rights Division. It is one of the top priorities that I have made while heading up the Civil Rights Division and I believe strongly that we need to enforce all the Federal voting laws that we are authorized to enforce as vigorously as we can and then let the chips fall where they may.


OPERATOR: The next question comes from Ari Shapiro of NPR.

QUESTION: Hi there! I have talked with a few people who attended this morning’s Briefing, people from Civil Rights organizations who say they were disappointed that from their perspective. Most of the Briefing was spent in a listening mode and they said the Justice officials described voting laws that most of the Civil Rights activists could recite by heart and at the end, there was very little time to ask the many, many questions that they came prepared to ask, which they were hoping to engage with Department officials on and I wonder if you could just respond to that critique?

MS. BECKER: Thank you very much for that question, Ari. This was intended to be a dialogue session and it certainly was intended to be the first of many conversations that we would like to have with Civil Rights organizations. This was intended to give a Brief Overview of the cases and the statutes that we enforce both in the Civil Rights Division and in the Criminal Division as well. We provided all of the contact information for individuals in the various sections so that they could call if they had any additional inquiries or any additional concerns. We would certainly welcome speaking with them on other occasions as we have in the past and expect to do so again in the future.

QUESTION: Great, thank you.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Lara Jakes Jordan of The Associated Press

QUESTION: Hi there! I have a couple of questions but just the first one to follow-up on what you just said. If today was the start of the dialogue, do you expect to have more of these meetings before the election?

MS. BECKER: We’ll see how things progress over the next, I guess a little under 60 days now, but certainly we have had ongoing dialogue with the Civil

Rights organizations and we will see if there is any additional need for meetings and if so, we will be able to hold those meetings for them.

QUESTION: Okay great. So two other questions. I also talked to some people who attended this morning. I’m told there were some concerns or issues raised about deception practices and it seems there is at least a perception that the Federal statutes only allow the Justice Department to go so far in enforcing protection against deceptive practices that would ultimately keep people away from the polls. Is that your stand?


MS. BECKER: We have certain Federal statutes that we can enforce that would protect against some of these deceptive practices, but of course there are always going to be some limitations, yes.

QUESTION: Okay, bear with me for one second, and then also somebody else brought up the concern about having prosecutors at the polls that U.S. Attorney offices have in the past and I think this person said since 2002, the Justice Department has deployed criminal prosecutors to the polls and there was a concern having these law enforcement officers would intimidate or keep some minority voters away from the polls. Could you respond to that, please?

MS. BECKER: Yes, we are very careful here in the Civil Rights Division. We don’t want to do anything, send monitors or observers out, that would in any way intimidate the voters at the polls.

I can tell you that in both Democratic and Republican administrations, prosecutors have been used in very limited numbers as monitors and observers. The vast majority of the hundreds of observers that we send out on Election Day are Federal Government employees that are sent out through the Office of Personnel Management, and then the vast majority of DOJ personnel that we send out are Civil Rights attorneys, from here in the Civil Rights Division, either from the Voting Section or from one of the other sections in the Civil Rights Division.

We have, again across administrations, in very limited numbers used personnel from local U.S. Attorney offices. These may be attorneys on the civil side. These may be non-attorneys and they have in some limited instances, been prosecutors as well and we have received no complaints at any time from voters that they were intimidated in any way because we make sure that number one, we vet the prosecutors before we use them so that they are not involved in any high profile voter fraud cases; number two, that they receive training on what their responsibilities are as monitors and observers, to look out for potential violations of the Federal voting laws that we enforce; and number three, that they are not identified in any way as a prosecutor at the polls.

They are not carrying a gun. They are not wearing their badge and so for the person at the polls, they would not be able to distinguish this person from for example, a Civil Rights Division attorney that we have. Some of the ones that we used have been former Civil Rights attorneys who are experienced monitors and observers. There are some others that have specific language capabilities that help us monitor to ensure that we are meeting their obligation for individuals with limited English proficiencies.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Mary Pat Flaherty of The Washington Post.

QUESTION: Yes hi! You had said that in one of the meetings this morning there were several issues that warranted your looking into and I am wondering which ones were then raised that you thought were worth exploring and then secondly, do you have a sense yet of specific areas either geographically or topic wise that you think you are going to be focusing more attention on this time around rather than previous elections?MS. BECKER: I guess there are two separate questions. I will answer each one in turn and if I could get the second question now during the course of answering the first, hopefully you will remind me.

QUESTION: Regrettably, I think I did three!

MS. BECKER: I’ve already forgotten one. I am sure you will remind me. I think one of the questions that you raised involves what issue I thought was important that came up during the morning meeting. One of the issues that came up was a concern about voter ID laws. They had asked what I could do to ensure that state and local officials knew what the Supreme Court’s decision in the Indiana photo ID case did and did not do and what their responsibilities are under state law?

I assured them that I was going to speak with state and local officials this afternoon and I did mention that issue in particular. For those of you who may not be familiar with the case, it is Crawford vs. Marion County, Indiana, and it is case where the Supreme Court held that the Indiana photo ID law was constitutional but left open the possibilities that an individual voter might in the future be able to bring and as applied challenge if the law was applied unconstitutionally as to them.

In addition, as applied challenge, the Civil Rights Division can enforce the Voting Rights Act and under the Voting Rights Act if even a constitutionally sound voter ID law is being applied or is enforced in a discriminatory manner, that would be something that we could take appropriate law enforcement action in and in fact, just over a month ago, we brought and settled a case with Penns Grove, New Jersey, that included allegations that Hispanic voters were being required to present more identification at the polls than white voters and that is in a state that doesn’t have an ID law, so that was something that I emphasized in my conversation earlier this afternoon with state and local officials.

You wanted to ask geographically about where we send monitors?

QUESTION: Well if you have places that are of keener interest to you this year than in earlier elections, even in the Primary or last time General?

MS. BECKER: One consideration that we take into account in determining where to send out Federal observers and monitors, are places where there are Court Orders that require us to send them out; places where we recently entered into Consent Decrees. We want to monitor compliance with those Consent Decrees. We will also look for areas where there may be potential violations of the Federal laws that we enforce in the Civil Rights Division in the Voting Section, so those are all very important considerations and certainly not the only considerations, but significant ones.

QUESTION: So you don’t have sites chosen as of yet?

MS. BECKER: What we typically do is we announce in public label issue a Press Release a few days before the election. For example, today we issued a Press Release to announce that we will be monitoring elections in the New York area; I think Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens tomorrow. I would be on the lookout for that within a couple of days or so of the actual Election Day.

QUESTION: Thank you.OPERATOR: The next question comes from Terry Frieden of CNN.

QUESTION: Hello! I have two questions also and like others, I’ve spoken with a number of representatives who attended the meeting this morning. My first question has to do with language requirements. A couple of representatives, one happened to be Pakistani, one happened to be Native American, expressed the continuing problem of the lack of available ballots in languages for their communities and I wanted to know when you are dealing with small minority groups, how much latitude or flexibility do you have in deciding whether to provide balloting materials for groups like that?

Let me just throw out the second question. As I am listening to your Briefing, I haven’t I don’t think heard anything that couldn’t have been said by your predecessor briefing us on election four years ago with the exception of the reference to the discussion about Crawford vs. Marion County. Can you tell me what Civil Rights Division is doing differently, if anything, than it did for the last General Election in specifics, including the number of monitors which as I recall you said hundreds and I believe four years ago, the number of monitors and observers was something like 900 but it was less than 1,000. Will you have more this year than last time?


MS. BECKER: It is too soon to predict how many monitors will be out there on Election Day. We are still about two months out from the actual election, but I can tell you it will be in the hundreds and beyond that I don’t have any specific number. I can assure you just like I have assured the individuals in the Voting Section that they will have the resources that they need to put as comprehensive monitoring serving program that they need to ensure that we do our job on Election Day. You also asked about (Interrupted by Mr. Frieden).

QUESTION: About language.

MS. BECKER: Yes, the language minority issues. Let me give you a little background. There are a couple of different provisions in The Voting Rights Act that would apply to some of the language minority issues that we deal with.

Section 203 is the primary one and it requires state and local jurisdictions to translate certain election-related materials into various languages if they meet the threshold minimum population of limited English proficient individuals in certain language categories as set forth by the U.S. Census Bureau.

I guess you had mentioned Pakistani and Native American and it would depend upon whether or not the jurisdiction they were in were in a 203 coverage jurisdiction as we call it. The coverage formula is if they have more than 10,000 or more than 5% of all voting age citizens, or if they are on an Indian Reservation, it exceeds 5% of all Reservation residents and the illiteracy rate of the group is higher than the National Illiteracy rate.

That would be something that we are looking at and in addition, to the language minority issues is if it was determined that there was discrimination going on against Pakistani or Native Americans, we certainly could take additional action under Section 2 of The Voting Rights Act or if there was a denial of Equal Opportunity for these groups to participate. That is the coverage formula that we work with here in the Civil Rights Division. I hope that answered your question.


OPERATOR: The next question comes from Donna Leinwand of USA Today.

QUESTION: Hi, I just wanted to ask you about the monitoring. I mean you mentioned if you have a Consent Decree that would trigger sending monitors out. Can you tell me specifically some other criteria that you would have for sending monitors out? Are they sort of picked randomly? Do you do any sort of random poll monitoring or do they all have to be triggered by some sort of suspicion of a Civil Rights violation? MS. BECKER: Yes, I can give you some factors. With the caveat it would certainly not be any exhaustive list of factors. We do not send monitors out randomly. We send monitors out where we have specific allegations with regard to specific jurisdictions.

One of them obviously would be if there are some jurisdictions that are under Court Order for observers and monitors and so we would send those out. There are also some where the Consent Decree permits us to send them out. Some of them may be pursuant to our investigatory ongoing active investigations we have here in the Civil Rights Division. Others may be based upon recent credible allegations of potential violations of law that perhaps are not necessarily of long standing investigations, but are newer allegations that come up closer to Election Day.

We also have taken into account if there is a history of racial discrimination at the polls and racially polarized voting in an election contest that may bring out that racial polarizing affect that would be obviously something we would consider as well.

QUESTION: Is somebody studying these things? Like is there a person in your office that is you know going back and looking at the history or monitoring the local newspapers or anything like that to see if there are these racially tinged elections?

MS. BECKER: We certainly do monitor the media and the media has been a very helpful source to us in determining and gathering information. The Civil Rights has been around 51 years and so we have a fair amount of historical knowledge here, institutional knowledge here within the Department and certainly have our own history of where our prior enforcement actions have been.

The people in the Voting Section are certainly very sensitive to areas where there has been a history of voting discrimination, particularly when it comes up in conjunction with credible allegations of potential violations today.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: And we have a follow-up question from Evan Perez of The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask about voter purges. Are there are some states that as you get closer to the election, go through and do voter roll purges. Does the Department have any role or anything to do with monitoring those purges?

I mean obviously they raise questions from time to time as to whether or not people who are legitimately entitled to vote are taken off the rolls and then have a hard time you know being able to access a ballot on Election Day. I wondered if you have anything that you are doing to ensure what the states are doing is legitimate and that it is working the way it should?

MS. BECKER: Yes, we do. The National Voter Registration Act puts in specific guidelines relating to when ineligible voters can be removed from the roll. They put in both procedural protections and time protections for voters as we approach Election Day. For example, no voter can be removed from the list unless they received a mailing from a state or local government jurisdiction and they have not voted within two Federal general elections and only then can be considered for removal from the roll and they cannot be removed from the roll within 90 days of Election Day and so now we are within that 90 day moratorium so there should not be any additional voters being removed from the rolls now.

If we hear of allegations that people are being improperly removed from the voter rolls, we can bring lawsuits under Section 8 of The National Voter Registration Act and we have done so.

QUESTION: Okay and you’ve been monitoring the efforts of states this time around. I mean, can you give me any sense of you know what you are doing to monitor that?MS. BECKER: We have open investigations under The National Voter Registration Act and we continue those investigations. If you are aware of any specific information in specific jurisdictions, we certainly welcome that information as well.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

OPERATOR: We have another follow-up from Lara Jakes Jordan of The Associated Press.

QUESTION: Thanks. So this just occurred to me when you were talking to Evan. I don’t know if this is a state or a Federal issue, but one way an election board might try to verify if somebody is still eligible to vote is by sending out a mailer to somebody’s address and in this year of astounding mortgage foreclosures where there might be a lot of people moving around, how can the Government, how can the Justice Department try to protect the people who have had to give up their houses from not having to give up their accessibility or their eligibility to vote if they no longer live at the address where the election board has been registered?

MS. BECKER: Are you talking about private mailings or are you talking about mailings from the State?

QUESTION: Well mailings from the State but the private mailings is an issue that I guess in on your forefront as well.

MS. BECKER: As I indicated, there is a 90 day moratorium, so there should not be the list maintenance procedures going on during this time period and names should not be taken off the list during this 90 day time period going up to an election, so hopefully, if you become aware that there are jurisdictions out there that are not complying, we certainly welcome any information that you may have in that regard.

QUESTION: What about mailings or people who have change of addresses prior to the 90 days?

MS. BECKER: Well people who have changed addresses prior to the 90 days, they should certainly notify their local state and local officials or whatever the appropriate office is, perhaps the State Secretary of the State or local election office to ensure that they are properly on the rolls for the polling place they need to be on.

QUESTION: So in other words, it is incumbent upon the homeowner to make sure they are still on an eligible list?

MS. BECKER: Yes, if they have moved, it is incumbent upon them to contact their local registration office to let them know the new address.

QUESTION: Is that something that actually falls under Federal statute for something that you all would be safe guarding or monitoring or is that more of a state and local issue?

MS. BECKER: It strikes me of more a state and local issue.QUESTION: Okay thank you.

OPERATOR: That does conclude today’s teleconference. You may now disconnect you phone lines.