This year’s campaign is the first in which voters in federal, state and local contests will be deprived full protection under the Voting Rights Act, a 1965 law that the US Supreme Court partially invalidated three years ago. The court decision limits the US government’s power to supervise states with histories of voter discrimination or election irregularities.
Prominent organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have pointed out that some states have made it harder for particular groups of Americans to exercise their voting rights.
So far, 2016 has seen new restrictions adopted in at least 14 states — Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
In October, a total of 88 civil-rights groups issued a letter asking election officials across the United States to disclose how they intend to ensure voting rights are protected when Americans head to the polls. The groups urged state officials to develop plans to ensure no voter is disenfranchised on Election Day.
During early voting in his home state of Maryland, US Senator Ben Cardin said the federal government has a “moral obligation” to stop any kind of suppressive action designed to keep minorities from exercising their constitutional right to vote.
“In this first election since the US Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act, we want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to vote free from intimidation or delay,” Cardin stated.
Voter suppression has been widely discussed during the presidential campaign, sparking vigorous debate between Democrats and Republicans that, in some instances, has led to litigation.
In August, the US-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights urged the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe to send extra observers in addition to the 500 it had already planned to deploy to monitor US elections.
In October, for example, the NAACP chapter in North Carolina sued the state elections board for unlawfully invalidating thousands of voter registrations, especially those of African-Americans, based on allegations that voters had moved, despite a federal law allowing residents to relocate within a county without changing their registration.
Democratic Party officials in four states — Arizona, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania — recently took Republicans to court for allegedly intimidating African-American, Latino and other minority voters and fabricating instances of voter fraud.
Lawyers for the state Democrats also argued in court filings that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has frequently encouraged supporters at his rallies to use illegal tactics against opponents in order to intimidate voters, sometimes leading to violent altercations.
The 2016 campaign has also been marked by issues affecting voter registration, with some people being turned away from polling stations as a result.
Last month, the ACLU brought a lawsuit against a county clerk in West Virginia who refused to recognize the online voter registration of a college student who had recently moved to the state.
“Many people could be disenfranchised on Election Day because of it,” ACLU legal director Jamie Lynn Crofts said in a press release, referring to restrictions of online voting.
Also in October, the New Virginia Majority Education Fund sued after state election officials refused to extend deadlines for voters who didn’t complete applications because the registration website crashed.
In light of reported violations, Trump argued that voter registration systems across the country should be revised immediately. He cited a 2012 Pew Research study that found one in eight registrations were either invalid or inaccurate and that over 1.8 million dead people were listed as voters.
In August, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe tried to reinstate the voting rights of 13,000 convicted felons but he was overruled by the state’s Supreme Court.
McAuliffe had argued that “restoring the rights of Virginians who have served their time and live, work and pay taxes in our communities is one of the pressing civil rights issues of our day.” The governor also accused Republicans of trying to use the judiciary system to “intimidate and disenfranchise people.”
In California, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill to reinstate voting rights for people convicted of a felony who aren’t currently detained, but the law won’t take effect until 2017.
Trump, who has long claimed the electoral system is rigged, said last week that early voting in key swing states is fraudulent — after learning that the results so far favor Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival.
"Of course there is large-scale voter fraud happening on and before Election Day,” Trump wrote in a Twitter message. “Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on?"
Federal authorities have tried to assure the American public that voter fraud is extremely rare, and the Department of Justice said it was taking extra precautions to monitor and prevent it. These include assigning special agents to serve as election-crime coordinators in 56 field offices.
Independent organizations will also mobilize resources to prevent fraud, including the conservative activist group Judicial Watch, which plans to send representatives to polling places in Virginia.
Judicial Watch claims that nearly 58,000 Virginia residents are registered to vote in at least one other state. The total number of such violations could be much higher, the group asserted, if data from populous states such as New York, California and Texas are calculated.
However, Virginia authorities countered that they were confident in their ability to handle any voter fraud that might occur.
“We are pretty confident going into the election," Virginia Election Commissioner Edgardo Cortes told Sputnik at a recent Aspen Institute event in Washington, DC. "We are really confident in our ability at the state level and the local level to deal with voter fraud issues if they come up."
Transparency in his state’s registration process, Cortes said, helps prevent fraud, most of which would be addressed locally and rarely requires federal intervention.
Citizens and legal residents will elect the next US president, as well as candidates for Congress and numerous state and local offices on Tuesday.