As votes continued to be tallied in battleground states Thursday, a debate was shaping up over the Justice Department’s legal right to use armed federal officers to investigate potential voter fraud.
Suggesting that an order authorizing their use was a form of federal intimidation, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, declared, “Nothing is going to stop the counting of these legal ballots,” reported CommonDream,org
“Elections are a state matter, and we have authority as state officials over anyone trying to enter locations where ballots are being counted,” she said. “Anything else is a radical reinterpretation of the law. States can handle elections, and we will ensure the people decide the outcome.”
The DOJ told federal prosecutors that the law allowed them to send armed federal officers to ballot-counting locations to investigate potential voter fraud, the New York Times reports.
The DOJ email created the specter of the federal government intimidating local election officials or otherwise intervening in vote tallying amid calls by President Donald Trump to end the tabulating in states where he was trailing in the presidential race.
As of Thursday morning, the president’s campaign had filed legal challenges in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia. The new filing joined existing legal challenges in Pennsylvania and Nevada.
The Associated Press called Michigan for Democrat Joe Biden on Wednesday. The AP has not called Nevada, Pennsylvania or Georgia. In addition, in Wisconsin, the Trump campaign is demanding a recount.
A law prohibits stationing of armed federal officers at polls on Election Day. A top DOJ official, Richard Donoghue, told prosecutors that the department interpreted the statute to mean that they could send armed federal officers to polling stations and locations where ballots were being counted after that.
Armed federal agents at the FBI, the Marshals Service, or other agencies are generally restricted from conducting investigations at election sites because of the prospect of intimidation.
As TIME reports, “Justice Department policy guidelines note that a federal statute makes it a felony for any federal official to send troops or ‘armed men’ to open polling places, except under specific circumstances, including to repel ‘armed enemies’ or to respond to bomb threats or active shooters.”
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro told MSNBC late Wednesday that he is aware of the Justice Department’s email and prepared to deal with its potential consequences.
“It is yet another one of the issues we planned for,” said Shapiro. “Nothing is going to stop the counting of these legal ballots in Pennsylvania.”
Vanita Gupta, acting DOJ civil rights chief in the Obama administration, said, “This seems like a messaging tactic for the attorney general. Lawfully, the Justice Department can’t interfere in the vote count, enter polling places or take ballots, even in the course of an investigation.”
Election experts said any DOJ effort to interfere in the election would prompt legal challenges. Armed officials at ballot-counting locations even for investigatory purposes could intimidate or disrupt the process, they warned.
“The very strong, longstanding norm is that the federal government does not seek to do anything to interfere with a state’s ability to count votes and certify elections,” said Kristy Parker, an Obama-era DOJ civil rights lawyer.