US attorney general William Barr has allowed federal prosecutors to probe alleged irregularities in the presidential election, prompting a top justice department official to quit.
The attorney general wrote that inquiries could be made by federal prosecutors “if there are clear and apparently-credible allegations of irregularities that, if true, could potentially impact the outcome of a federal election in an individual State”.
Mr Barr said prosecutors should only look into “substantial allegations” of irregularities.
He acknowledged that individual states had the primary responsibility for the conduct of elections but said the justice department had “an obligation to ensure that federal elections are conducted in such a way that the American people can have full confidence in their electoral process and their government”.
The department would normally only go beyond preliminary investigations after an election had been concluded and the results certified, but Mr Barr said this could result in situations where “misconduct cannot realistically be rectified”.
The official, Richard Pilger, would have overseen such investigations. Mr Pilger said he had quit in response to Mr Barr’s memo.
“Having familiarised myself with the new policy and its ramifications… I must regretfully resign from my role,” he wrote in an email to colleagues.
Mr Pilger became head of the department’s Election Crimes Branch in 2010. This branch, and Mr Pilger himself, were previously in the public eye at the time of a row about extra scrutiny of political groups seeking tax exemption.
Any such cases would normally be the remit of individual states, but Mr Barr said this was not a hard and fast rule.
Donald Trump refuses to accept Joe Biden’s projected victory, and has made unsubstantiated fraud claims. The president’s campaign is seeking an emergency injunction in Pennsylvania to prevent Mr Biden’s victory being certified in the state.
The president-elect’s projected win there on Saturday took him over the threshold of 270 electoral college votes needed to secure victory nationwide.
Meanwhile the General Services Administration (GSA), which manages federal agencies, has held off on allowing Biden aides to formally begin the transition, saying no “ascertainment” on an election winner had yet been made.
The GSA is tasked with formally recognising the president-elect, and providing the funds and access to federal agencies that Mr Biden’s transition team needs.
In previous elections it has mostly acted promptly after the winner was declared, with the exception of the disputed election in 2000 when it waited until a Supreme Court ruling decided the result on 14 December.