For decades, federal prosecutors have been told not to mount election fraud investigations in the final months before an election for fear they could depress voter turnout or erode confidence in the results. Now, the Justice Department has lifted that prohibition weeks before the presidential election.
The move comes as President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr have promoted a false narrative that voter fraud is rampant, potentially undermining Americans’ faith in the election.
A Justice Department lawyer in Washington said in a memo to prosecutors on Friday that they could investigate suspicions of election fraud before votes are tabulated. That reversed a decades-long policy that largely forbade aggressively conducting such inquiries during campaigns to keep their existence from becoming public and possibly “chilling legitimate voting and campaign activities” or “interjecting the investigation itself as an issue” for voters.
The memo creates “an exception to the general non-interference with elections policy” for suspicions of election fraud, particularly misconduct by federal government workers, including postal workers or military employees; both groups transport mail-in ballots. The exception allows investigators to take overt investigative steps, like questioning witnesses, that were previously off limits in such inquiries until after election results were certified.
The move also allows prosecutors to make more of a spectacle of election fraud in the weeks before the vote on Nov. 3. The U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, promoted an arrest on Wednesday of a postal worker suspected of discarding mail, including dozens of ballots, which were found and put back in the mail.
The New York Times reviewed portions of the memo. ProPublica earlier reported details of it on Wednesday.