RELEASE: Voter Protection Program Holds Briefing on State vs. Federal Government Role in Safeguarding the Election with Former DOJ Officials and State Leaders

Published: 10.29.20

New “Federal Involvement Guidelines” Outlines the Limited Role of the Federal Government in Elections

Washington, D.C. — Today, the Voter Protection Program (VPP) held a press briefing with former federal officials and law enforcement leaders on the role of states vis-a-vis the federal government in safeguarding a free and fair election and ensuring every vote is counted. With continued movement in the courts on election-related issues and emerging concerns about federal involvement in the election, the VPP brought together leaders with decades of experience with voter protection issues to affirm the role of the states in running and certifying elections.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas expressed the primary role that state leaders, including state attorneys general and other elected state officials, play in ensuring every vote is counted, and working to protect against violations of voting rights like misinformation and interference, intimidation and suppression. “State leaders, not federal agencies, have the primary responsibility for protecting our democratic right to vote,” he said. “Let me be clear: New Mexico is in charge of our own election, and you can trust the office of the Attorney General and Secretary of State to protect the votes of everyone in our state.”

Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer added, “Here’s the big picture: The conduct of the elections, including elections for Federal offices, has always been the job of the States. For the DOJ or any other federal agency to interfere with a State’s administration of a free and fair election would cross a very clear red line. For a lot of reasons, we think such a radical departure from established practice is not going to happen.”

State governments have the primary responsibility to administer elections and enforce election law. Traditionally, the federal role has been limited to two areas: (1) Enforcing the protections of the Voting Rights Act to ensure that every eligible citizen has the right to vote, and (2) After all votes are counted and an election result is certified, prosecuting individuals who have committed federal election crimes. The Voter Protection Program released a “Federal Involvement Guidelines” as a reference guide to understand what federal election-related behavior is acceptable – and what behavior should raise concerns.

The scorecard follows other recently shared resources to help state attorneys general and their allies understand the rules and policies before, during, and after Election Day. Joanna Lydgate, National Director of the Voter Protection Program, said of the work of the VPP, “With these tools, state attorneys general, their allies, and key stakeholders will be better equipped to make sure the 2020 election is safe, fair, and secure. Every eligible voter must be able to vote, and every vote must be counted.”

In the runup to the 2020 election, recent comments and actions by some federal officials have raised concerns of the possibility of unprecedented federal involvement – and potentially unlawful interference – in the conduct of elections and enforcement of election laws at the state and local level.

Former Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sarah Saldaña reiterated the primary role states play in protecting the election. “As the former head of ICE, one of the law enforcement agencies within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and a U.S. Attorney, I want to echo what you heard from my colleagues who work in the FBI and other federal law enforcement: As a general rule, federal officials do not get involved in the workings and administration of elections,” she said.

Former Police Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department and Co-Chair of the  Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Community Policing, Chuck Ramsey, drew from his experience in state law enforcement leadership stating, “I have been a police officer and chief in three cities, and I’m here to tell you the federal government is not part of policing elections and ballot boxes. In my many decade career, the DOJ has never policed elections. If that were to happen now, it would be a major departure from the status quo and extremely troubling.”

Speaking from his experience as the former General Counsel of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ken Wainstein, weighed in from a federal agency perspective saying, “I can say with confidence and clarity that the FBI never has interfered in – and has no interest in interfering in – the states’ handling of elections. State officials are responsible for running elections, not the federal government.”

States attorneys general, governors, and secretaries of state are working hand-in-hand with law enforcement leaders to safeguard the 2020 election and beyond from unwarranted interference, from any direction.

The Voter Protection Program advances strategies and recommendations to protect the election and make sure every vote is counted, with a specific focus on the unique tools available to state attorneys general, governors, secretaries of state, and law enforcement leaders. In addition to the scorecard to help understand what federal election-related behavior is acceptable, the VPP also shared this week an updated litigation update memo highlighting the courts’ recent election decisions and ongoing voting rights litigation across the country, and a blog post on the distinct roles of state and federal leadership in elections.

The full recording of the briefing can be found here. If you would like additional information or to schedule a follow up conversation with state leaders and experts with the Voter Protection Project, please reach out to Mariam Ahmed, mariam.ahmed@berlinrosen.com.


About the Voter Protection Program

The Voter Protection Program is a nonpartisan initiative of the Progressive State Leaders Committee, a 501(c)(4) organization. Visit https://statesuniteddemocracy.org/about/ for more information.