Trump’s call for poll watchers sparks fears of voter intimidation

Election officials and voting rights experts are sounding the alarm over potential election chaos and voter intimidation in November after President Trump urged his supporters to monitor the polls on Election Day.

During Tuesday night’s presidential debate, Trump issued a call to his base to go to polling stations and make sure ballots aren’t “manipulated.”

“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it,” Trump said in response to a question about whether he would hold off on declaring victory until after the results are certified and ask his supporters to remain calm.

“I hope it’s going to be a fair election, and if it’s a fair election, I am 100 percent on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” Trump added.

His comments on the national stage follow similar remarks by his campaign. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, said in a video last week that he needs “every able-bodied man, woman to join [the] army for Trump’s election security operation.”

“We need you to help us watch them,” he added.

But if the president’s supporters comply with his request, they risk violating a host of state laws along with federal statutes rooted in a 19th century law designed to counter voter suppression tactics used by the KKK.

Subsequent laws — the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act — prohibit attempts to intimidate, threaten, coerce or interfere with anyone trying to vote.

“Everyday citizens can’t just show up in the polling places unless they are there to vote. They can vote and they can leave, but they can’t just be there to watch other peoples’ votes,” Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of the Election Reform Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, told The Hill. “It is concerning that the president would reference that kind of activity, and it is illegal.”

Numerous studies of voting practices have failed to find any of the widespread fraud, either by mail or at the polls, that Trump has repeatedly referenced over the past several months.

Top officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, have publicly cast doubt on Trump’s assertions of widespread voter fraud. Both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have, however, warned that foreign actors will likely attempt to spread disinformation around election results, further complicating the voter fraud issue.

“It is disturbing and dare I say alarming when comments from a major presidential candidate align with disinformation rhetoric from a foreign adversary,” said David Levine, a former Idaho election official who’s now an elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

A study of mail-in voting in three states where all voters cast ballots by mail found just 0.000025 percent possible cases of illegal voting. A related study by the conservative Heritage Foundation found 1,296 incidents of potential voter fraud since 1982, something Ben Ginsberg, a top Republican election lawyer, called a “minuscule percentage of the votes cast.”

That’s in part due to a well-established system of poll workers and poll observers already in place.

State laws lay out qualifications for becoming an election observer, many of which require training and certification in advance and often bar observers from interacting with voters. In some cases, they are appointed by the political parties directly.

“This concept of poll watching is long-standing. There are decades and decades these laws have been on the books, and the reason this all came together in the first place was to make sure elections are being properly managed. There are laws on how this can be done and by whom,” said Wendy Underhill, director of elections at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“You can’t just appoint yourself,” she said.

Levine noted that international observers are permitted to independently assess the elections each cycle. Those groups include election observation missions organized by the Organization for American States, and the electoral arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which recently scaled down its projected observers for November’s election from 500 to 30 due to coronavirus concerns.

“As a general matter, poll watchers can help ensure the integrity of the election,” Levine said. “When people misrepresent what the poll watcher process is, when people misrepresent either on purpose or on accident that process … that has the possibility of introducing chaos and confusion, and has the effect of getting Americans to question the legitimacy of their elections when there isn’t reason to do so.”

A whole host of other state laws prevent what Trump seems to be inciting. Most states bar people from entering polling places where they are not registered to vote, and many have specific setbacks that prevent “electioneering” anywhere between 25 feet and 200 feet of a polling place.

“The rules are pretty strict and again that’s designed to ensure that all legal U.S. citizens can go in and vote in a polling place without being subject to harassment or intimidation, which is clearly illegal and is both a crime and in violation of both federal voting rights statutes,” said Sarah Brannon, managing attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

Trump has already seen the tactic fail to work in some places.

“As you know, today there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch,” Trump said Tuesday.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which covered the incident, elections staff did not allow the public to arbitrarily enter their offices. The newspaper added that the Trump campaign does not have any poll watchers permitted to work in Philadelphia and that no polling places are open yet.

Kristen Clarke, president of the group Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, doesn’t think Trump’s focus on Philadelphia is coincidental.

“He focused on Philadelphia for a reason. Philadelphia is home to some of the largest numbers of African Americans and Latino voters in the state of Pennsylvania,” she said.

“This has been a pattern with this president who views intimidation tactics as one way to keep certain people away from the polls,” Clarke added.

The coronavirus adds another layer of complications. Election officials must scale down the number of voters allowed inside, which could lead to long lines that might extend beyond the boundaries of the electioneering perimeter.

“What makes it all the worse is that you’ve got poll workers who are contending with a pandemic and trying to ensure that they’re adhering to social distancing guidelines,” said Clarke.

“So as if poll workers were not already contending with enough, this is an unprecedented election and a highly racialized environment. It just presents every reason we should be sounding the alarm.”

Voting rights groups say they’ve beefed up their coalition that runs a hotline that responds to calls from voters who are having any kind of issue at the polls. Clarke said the number of lawyers who have volunteered to take calls has jumped from 5,000 to 20,000 ahead of the election.

“I just think it’s an extremely irresponsible suggestion or solicitation that the president would do this and encourage people to show up, especially given what we know about the way that Trump supporters have engaged in other violent or intimidating behavior in other places,” said Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation expert with the Wilson Center, referring to counter protestors and an incident where Trump supporters attempted to disrupt voting in Virginia.

“It’s just really concerning, and it’s not something that any candidate in America needs. No one needs an army.”

Tags Christopher Wray Donald Trump Election Day election monitors mail-in ballots Philadelphia polling stations voter fraud voter intimidation

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