The Department of Justice is reversing a long-standing policy and telling prosecutors they can launch investigations into the 2020 election before the votes are tabulated, according to reports by ProPublica and the New York Times. It reverses a long-standing policy to keep investigators from interfering in elections and possibly depressing turnout or sowing doubt in the outcome.
According to ProPublica, a memo sent by the Public Integrity Section says if a U.S. attorney's office suspects election fraud involving postal workers or military employees, investigators may begin an investigation before the polls close. Those groups transport mail-in ballots, the New York Times notes. Mail-in ballots have been a target of unsubstantiated claims by President Donald Trump that the election will face widespread fraud.
The DOJ investigations are allowed to begin even if it risks affecting the outcome of the election, according to ProPublica. The Times adds that investigators may question witnesses and take other steps that previously were considered off-limits until after the election is certified.
ProPublica reports the non-interference policy has been in place since 1980. The measure was meant to prevent people from being dissuaded from voting and from turning the investigation itself into an election issue, according to the Times.
Former FBI director James Comey came under intense criticism in 2016 for announcing 11 days before the election that the bureau was reopening its investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server. Clinton has blamed that decision among several reasons for her loss to Trump.
A DOJ spokesman, Matt Lloyd, claimed to ProPublica that "no political appointee had any role in directing, preparing or sending this email." But Lloyd reportedly did not say whether any political appointees had a role in the actual policy change.
Mail-in ballots are under heightened scrutiny this year as voters request them in record numbers amid the coronavirus pandemic and as Trump launches baseless attacks against the process. Among those amplifying Trump's message -- Attorney General William Barr who heads the DOJ.
A tally by the U.S. Elections Project shows that in states that report party registration data, nearly 22 million Democrats requested mail-in ballots compared to nearly 13 million by Republicans and about that same number from non-affiliated voters.
A group of senior national security officials provided fresh assurances about the integrity of the elections in a video message Tuesday, putting them at odds with Trump. Though Trump was not mentioned during the nine-minute video, the message from the speakers served as a tacit counter to his repeated efforts, including in last week's presidential debate, to allege widespread fraud in the mail ballot process and to preemptively cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.