For many years, federal prosecutors have been informed to not mount election fraud investigations within the remaining months earlier than an election for concern they might depress voter turnout or erode confidence within the outcomes. Now, the Justice Division has lifted that prohibition weeks earlier than the presidential election.

The transfer comes as President Trump and Legal professional Basic William P. Barr have promoted a false narrative that voter fraud is rampant, doubtlessly undermining People’ religion within the election.

A Justice Division lawyer in Washington mentioned in a memo to prosecutors on Friday that they might examine suspicions of election fraud earlier than votes are tabulated. That reversed a decades-long policy that largely forbade aggressively conducting such inquiries throughout campaigns to maintain their existence from changing into public and probably “chilling official voting and marketing campaign actions” or “interjecting the investigation itself as a problem” for voters.

The memo creates “an exception to the overall non-interference with elections coverage” for suspicions of election fraud, notably misconduct by federal authorities staff, together with postal staff or navy staff; each teams transport mail-in ballots. The exception permits investigators to take overt investigative steps, like questioning witnesses, that have been previously off limits in such inquiries till after election outcomes have been licensed.

The transfer additionally permits prosecutors to make extra of a spectacle of election fraud within the weeks earlier than the vote on Nov. 3. The U.S. lawyer in New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, promoted an arrest on Wednesday of a postal employee suspected of discarding mail, together with dozens of ballots, which have been discovered and put again within the mail.

The New York Occasions reviewed parts of the memo. ProPublica earlier reported particulars of it on Wednesday.

A longtime customary on the Justice Division retains investigators from taking any motion associated to an election or candidates inside a few months of Election Time out of the priority that even the notion of legislation enforcement involvement might erode confidence within the vote. The previous F.B.I. director James B. Comey was extensively criticized in 2016 for asserting the bureau’s resolution to not advocate fees in its inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s electronic mail server and reopening the case 11 days earlier than Mr. Trump’s upset win.

The Justice Division mentioned that the brand new memo was not a political act and that no political appointee directed, ready or issued it.

“Profession prosecutors within the Public Integrity part of the division’s Legal Division routinely ship out steering to the sphere throughout election season,” mentioned Matt Lloyd, a division spokesman. “This electronic mail was merely a part of that ongoing strategy of offering routine steering relating to election-related issues.”

Division officers additionally mentioned {that a} profession lawyer within the felony division suggested all U.S. attorneys on the problem over the summer season as a part of a broader briefing on election-related fraud, and that the division has at all times acknowledged that exceptions to the coverage existed.

The brand new steering stoked fears that Mr. Trump’s political appointees, led by Mr. Barr, have been wielding the facility of the Justice Division to assist his re-election bid. Democrats, civil rights legal professionals and former division officers from Republican and Democratic administrations have been on alert this 12 months for uncommon political strikes by the division in service of the president’s relentless — and false — claims that the US’ election system is being undermined by pervasive fraud.

Particularly, they’ve been cautious of late-breaking circumstances based mostly on voter fraud accusations that create extra headlines than substantive fees. Republicans have hunted for years to push the notion that there’s a voter fraud drawback in the US, regardless of little proof to again up their claims.

Throughout Mr. Trump’s presidency and his re-election bid, conservative efforts to search out voter fraud have gone into overdrive. Shortly after he defeated Mrs. Clinton in 2016, he claimed that thousands and thousands of People had voted illegally for her and he appointed a loyalist to look into the matter. No proof was ever discovered to again up Mr. Trump’s competition. However that has not stopped him from persevering with to repeat the claims, notably in latest months as he campaigns.

Democrats and election and authorized specialists have mentioned Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr are laying the groundwork to assert that the election was rigged if the president loses.

The Justice Division might “construct a story, regardless of the absence of any proof, of fraud in mail-in voting so Trump can problem the election outcomes if he loses,” mentioned Joyce Vance, a former U.S. lawyer in Alabama beneath the Obama administration.

“They’ve informed us that is their technique, and we’re watching them implement it,” Ms. Vance mentioned.

Wendy R. Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program on the Brennan Heart for Justice, mentioned she didn’t imagine the justification for altering the coverage had advantage. “In the event that they wish to deter misconduct that they’re anxious about, they will remind folks of the legislation and announce that they’re going to prosecute any violators to the fullest extent of the legislation,” she mentioned. “That doesn’t require an exception to this longstanding and wise coverage.”

Some election specialists mentioned that the brand new coverage on election fraud inquiries was a stark shift after Mr. Comey’s impact on the 2016 election.

“Traditionally, the D.O.J. has tried to keep away from taking any actions that would have affect on an election, so, for instance, holding indictments or asserting investigations that would affect elections,” mentioned Richard L. Hasen, a professor of legislation on the College of California, Irvine.

He predicted that the memo might result in many extra bulletins like final month’s extremely uncommon disclosure by a federal prosecutor in Pennsylvania who detailed an open voter fraud investigation into 9 discarded ballots. The revelation helped bolster Mr. Trump’s false claims that mail-in voting was rife with fraud, regardless that the state’s high election official mentioned later that the episode was “a foul error” and “not intentional fraud.”

The announcement was uncommon each for revealing an open investigation and for its disclosure that a few of the ballots had been forged for Mr. Trump, a truth specialists mentioned was immaterial to the investigation and helped feed his baseless assaults on mail-in voting.

The coverage shift, Mr. Hasen mentioned, “encourages extra of those bulletins that would, these small-bore issues, be handled as proof of rigging after which promoted at a better stage.”

Mr. Barr has additionally echoed the president’s claims on voter fraud.

In latest weeks, the lawyer normal has additionally made accusations unsupported by proof that voting by mail might result in fraud and abuse. In an interview final month with CNN, he asserted that the Justice Division had indicted a person in Texas who had collected almost 2,000 ballots from individuals who couldn’t vote and illegally forged them for the candidate of his alternative.

After The Washington Submit questioned the account, a division spokeswoman mentioned that no such indictment existed and that Mr. Barr had relied on a memo with inaccurate info.

He has additionally mentioned that he had no “empirical proof” that mail-in ballots would result in mass voter fraud, pointing as a substitute to “widespread sense.”

“I don’t have empirical proof that on this scale, you realize, these issues have been materialized,” he mentioned throughout an occasion final month for Hillsdale Faculty.

In an uncommon present of insubordination, federal prosecutors in Massachusetts and Seattle have publicly accused Mr. Barr of primarily engaged on behalf of the Trump marketing campaign, citing his resolution to intervene in circumstances towards the president’s allies and to amplify the criticisms that Mr. Trump has lobbed towards Black Lives Matter on the marketing campaign path.

Considered one of them, Michael Dion, wrote in a letter to The Seattle Times that Mr. Barr had turned the Justice Division “right into a defend to guard the president and his henchmen.”

“Barr does these items as a result of his objective is to guard his grasp, relatively than the American folks,” Mr. Dion wrote. A Justice Division spokeswoman declined to touch upon the letters.

Nick Corasaniti and Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting.

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