Officials in Florida, Missouri push back against DOJ's long-standing election monitoring practice

A sign next to a parking lot reads: Polling place.
A sign points to a polling place at Barack Obama Elementary School during the primary election in St. Louis in August. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Officials in Florida and Missouri are pushing back against routine efforts by the Justice Department to monitor local election procedures in their states, suggesting that the presence of federal monitors at polling places would be disruptive and intimidating.

The public challenges follow an announcement from the Justice Department Monday that federal election monitors with the department’s Civil Rights Division would be deployed to 64 jurisdictions in 24 states to ensure compliance with federal voting rights laws during Tuesday’s midterm elections. Among the jurisdictions slated to receive Justice Department monitors were Florida’s Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, and Cole County, Mo.

Though the DOJ’s announcement was issued against the backdrop of heightened concerns about possible voter intimidation and harassment of election workers, the Justice Department made clear in its press release that Election Day monitoring of local voting procedures is standard practice.

“Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Division has regularly monitored elections in the field in jurisdictions around the country to protect the rights of voters,” the department said.

A woman walks up some steps to the doors of a polling place.
Voters go to the Coliseum polling precinct to cast their ballots on Tuesday in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Still, some officials have sought to paint the practice as unusual and unnecessary.

First, Cole County, Mo., Clerk Steve Korsmeyer said he would not allow federal monitors inside polling places in his county, in a decision backed by Missouri’s Republican secretary of state, Jay Ashcroft.

“Under Missouri law, the local election authority is empowered to decide who, other than voters and poll workers, may be at polling locations,” Ashcroft said in a tweet. “Cole County Clerk Steve Korsmeyer has rightfully declined to allow this overreach and the secretary of state’s office fully supports him.”

Drivers line up in their cars to drop off ballots.
People drop off their ballots on Tuesday in Miami. (Saul Martinez/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Then, Brad McVay, the chief counsel for the Florida Department of State, sent a letter Monday evening to the elections coordinator for the Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section arguing that Florida law does not include Justice Department personnel among the list of people who “may enter any polling room or polling place,” and that federal monitors would not qualify for the Florida statute that allows law enforcement inside polling sites.

“Absent some evidence concerning the need for federal intrusion, or some federal statute that preempts Florida law, the presence of federal law enforcement inside polling places would be counterproductive and could potentially undermine confidence in the election,” McVay wrote.

Instead, McVay said, the Florida Department of State — which is overseen by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis — would be sending its own monitors to those three counties, which are among the most heavily Democratic in the state.

“These monitors will ensure that there is no interference with the voting process,” he wrote.

A poll worker stamps a ballot at a drive-in drop box.
A poll worker stamps a ballot at a drive-in drop box on Tuesday in Miami. (Saul Martinez/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

This is not the first time federal election monitors have been dispatched to polling sites in Florida, nor to these particular counties. Ahead of the 2020 election, the Justice Department similarly announced that it would be sending monitors to six Florida counties, including Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach. Justice Department personnel were also deployed to oversee the 2018 elections in Palm Beach County as well as two other Florida jurisdictions.

Though DeSantis ordered members of the Florida National Guard to locations across the state on Election Day in 2020 in case of potential civil unrest, his administration doesn’t appear to have prohibited the Justice Department’s monitors from accessing polling places. And quotes from local election officials in jurisdictions that received federal monitors that year, including Orange and Hillsborough counties, suggested little pushback from those running elections on the ground.

“This is a standard practice for the DOJ,” Craig Latimer, supervisor of elections for Hillsborough County, said at the time.

An election worker holds a stack of U.S. Postal Service trays containing mail-in ballots.
Miami-Dade County elections department employees begin counting mail-in ballots on Tuesday in Miami. (Saul Martinez/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

A request for comment from McVay was forwarded to Mark Ard, director of external affairs for the Florida Department of State, who directed Yahoo News to remarks made by Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd at a press conference in Tallahassee Tuesday morning.

In response to a question about the “change in policy” toward DOJ election monitors, Byrd insisted that there was “no change in policy,” but rather that his office had pushed back against “a new ask” by the DOJ to place monitors inside polling places.

“My understanding was they didn’t ask to be in the polling places” in 2020, he said.

A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment on the pushback its election monitors have received from officials in Florida and Missouri.