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In Mississippi, poll watching plan sparks fears of intimidation

Ahead of Mississippi's GOP Senate primary, conservatives say they plan to guard polling places against Democrats looking to vote. But the Feds are watching.
Supporters of Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel hold signs during a Tea Party Express campaign event in Biloxi, Mississippi, June 22, 2014.
Supporters of Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel hold signs during a Tea Party Express campaign event in Biloxi, Mississippi, June 22, 2014.

The U.S. Justice Department says it’s keeping a close eye on a plan by conservatives to send poll-watchers to Mississippi for the state’s U.S. Senate race Tuesday—a “voter integrity” project that’s sparking fears of intimidation and racial profiling. And now, Mississippi's attorney general and secretary of state are chiming in, too. 

“The department is aware of concerns about voter intimidation and is monitoring the situation,” a Justice Department spokesperson told msnbc. “Voters that experience problems are encouraged to call 1-800-253-3931."

An array of conservative groups supporting Chris McDaniel, including the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Tea Party Patriots, and True the Vote have said they’re sending poll-watchers to the state amid reports that some Mississippi Democratic operatives are working to turn out black Democrats in support of McDaniel’s opponent, Sen. Thad Cochran. The poll-watching effort is being organized in part by Christian Adams, a former Bush Justice Department lawyer who has long sought to publicize claims of voter fraud and illegal voting.

“The laws in Mississippi are unusually open to poll watching from the outside,” Ken Cuccinelli, the head of the Senate Conservatives Fund, told The New YorkTimes. “We’re going to take full advantage of that and we’re going to lay eyes on Cochran’s effort to bring Democrats in...And of course, if they voted in primaries, that’s illegal.”

The state's primaries are open to voters regardless of party affiliation. But Adams and his allies cite a Mississippi law that bars people from voting for a primary candidate they don't plan to support in the general election.

Meanwhile, Mississippi's attorney general and secretary of state issued a press release Monday, saying outside groups have no authority to send poll watchers to monitor state elections. They also say that under their interpretation of the law, only voters who openly declare their intention to support a different candidate in the general election can be challenged at the polls.

There's little agreement on just how the law works, and how it could be applied in practice. But Mississippi has the most racially polarized voting in the nation—in 2008, 98% of blacks voted for President Obama, and 88% of whites supported Sen. John McCain. That's raising concerns that the effort could work to keep blacks from the polls—echoing a dark chapter in the state's history.

Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine and a prominent election law scholar, earlier urged the Justice Department to send its own monitors to protect voting rights. 

This is Cochran's last shot to keep his job: McDaniel beat him in the Republican primary, but didn't snag enough votes to avoid a run-off. 

Most Mississippi Democrats, too, are wary of efforts to lure the party's voters to the polls in support of Cochran. If the far-right McDaniel gains the nomination, Democrats might have a chance of winning the general election and picking up an unexpected Senate seat. A victory on Tuesday for Cochran, who has been in the Senate for over three and a half decades, would virtually guarantee that the GOP holds onto the seat.

In a recent email, Rickey Cole, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic party, urged Democrats not to get involved, saying it's illegal for them to do so, Breitbart reported.

“That is the black letter law,” Cole wrote. “Look it up."