A bipartisan group of secretaries of state are condemning a proposal to allow armed Secret Service agents at election polling stations. The proposal has already been approved by the House as part of the Homeland Security Department reauthorization bill. On Friday, 19 secretaries of state wrote a letter to Senate leaders urging them to drop the proposal, calling it “unprecedented and shocking.” For more, we speak with Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A bipartisan group of secretaries of state are condemning a proposal to allow armed Secret Service agents at polling stations. The proposal has already been approved by the House as part of the Homeland Security Department reauthorization bill. On Friday, 19 secretaries of state wrote a letter to Senate leaders urging them to drop the proposal, calling it, quote, “unprecedented and shocking.” Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, a Democrat, told The Boston Globe, quote, “This is worthy of a Third World country. I’m not going to tolerate people showing up to our polling places. I would not want to have federal agents showing up in largely Hispanic areas. The potential for mischief here is enormous.”
AMY GOODMAN: The League of Women Voters also criticized the proposal. The group’s president, Chris Carson, said, quote, “This is just one more attempt this Administration has made to attack voters and flagrantly dismantle core tenants of our democracy,” unquote.
On Monday, the Secret Service issued a statement claiming the reports about the bill have been grossly mischaracterized. The agency said, “The only time armed Secret Service personnel would be at a polling place would be to facilitate the visiting of one of our protectees while they voted,” unquote.
We go now to Washington, DC, where we’re joined by Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Kristen Clarke, welcome to Democracy Now! Why are you so concerned about this bill, as it now has been approved by the House and will be voted on by the Senate?
KRISTEN CLARKE: Well, this proposal is truly chilling and jarring. The idea of having federal law enforcement agents patrolling, roaming inside polling places, harkens back to tactics that we saw during the Jim Crow era. Law enforcement historically has been used to discourage and depress minority voter turnout. And so, this latest proposal truly harkens back to dark tactics that we have seen used effectively to keep people away from polls in our country.
The Senate has not moved on this latest rider to Homeland Security reauthorization — the Homeland Security reauthorization bill, but we can’t forget that this proposal, in so many respects, mirrors the language that President Trump used on the campaign trail. At a 2016 rally in Pennsylvania, Trump told his supporters that they should go out and watch and look, after they are done voting. He told his rally attendees that we need to call up the sheriffs, and we need to call the police chiefs, to watch and monitor polling sites.
This is truly a threat to democracy. We should be working to make sure our polling sites are neutral ground where all voters can feel safe and free to go out and cast their ballots. Federal law enforcement agents would absolutely depress and discourage minority voter turnout. And so, this is something that we have to fight back on.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Kristen Clarke, what do you make of the administration’s argument that this is basically just clarifying the ability of the Secret Service to enter polls with protectees, which presumably would be the president or the vice president going to vote?
KRISTEN CLARKE: It doesn’t match the language of the rider, which was far broader and more sweeping. The language in the rider said that any officer or any agent of the Secret Service would be allowed to enter polling sites.
This is a moment that requires we remain vigilant. We can’t forget that this administration is the same one that launched the so-called election integrity commission, whose sole goal and purpose was to lay the groundwork for voter suppression. So, once again, we have this administration taking truly unprecedented action that would make it harder for people to vote and that would discourage people from coming out to polling sites this midterm election cycle.
AMY GOODMAN: The plan has also been opposed by many Republican secretaries of state, including Jon Husted in Ohio. He said, quote, “The fact that the US Senate would even consider enacting a law that would allow a President to place Secret Service agents in polling places is shocking. The frightening irony is that in creating additional safeguards to prevent Russian meddling in American elections, these Senators would open the door to unprecedented federal intrusion that could lead to an American election system that looks more like Putin’s Russia.” Kristen Clarke, if you could respond to that, and the significance of this being a bipartisan group of secretaries of state?
KRISTEN CLARKE: That’s right. The 19 secretaries of state that have come out against this proposal, it’s a bipartisan group that makes clear that there are people on both sides of the aisle that see this as meddling in the way that they would conduct elections in their state. Joe Arpaio in Arizona is somebody who unleashed sheriffs outside polling places in Maricopa County years ago. And again, during the Jim Crow era, we saw this used as a familiar tactic to depress African-American and Latino voter turnout.
And, you know, all of this distracts the public’s attention away from real threats to democracy today. I am disheartened by the fact that Congress, the congressional committee, is shutting down its inquiry into Russia’s meddling in our election. I am disheartened by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has not brought a single voting rights case on behalf of minority voters during his tenure at the Justice Department. We have deep concerns that this proposal is a thinly veiled attempt to resurrect the now-disbanded election integrity commission. All of these are tactics really aimed at suppressing the vote during the 2018 midterm election cycle. And we need the public to remain vigilant.
At the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, we lead the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection program, Election Protection. It’s anchored by an 866-OUR–VOTE hotline. And we encourage the public to speak up if they see local, state or federal law enforcement officers outside the polls. Many states actually have laws that expressly prohibit police officers from being anywhere near polling sites. We know that this stands to be a barrier for voters. Again, our polling sites should be places where people feel that they are able to freely cast their ballots during elections.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to thank you, Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, as we speak on this day of Pennsylvania’s special election that is taking place there. We’ll cover it tomorrow.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at the “60 Minutes” interview with the education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Stay with us.