/Trump army of poll watchers could frighten voters, incite violence, election officials warn

Trump army of poll watchers could frighten voters, incite violence, election officials warn

Deep in the Democratic stronghold of Fairfax County, Virginia, about 50 of President Donald Trump’s supporters gathered, wrapping themselves in American flags and waving Trump 2020 banners as they chanted: “Four more years! Four more years!”

It was Sept. 19, and the county had just begun early voting. The Republican volunteers stood on the sidewalk outside of the concrete Fairfax County government center building. Steps away, voters waited to cast their ballot while lined up on blue social distancing markers.

As the crowd grew — along with the chants — county elections officials began whisking the voters into the building, despite concerns of spreading COVID-19. County officials explained later that several voters felt threatened by the crowd, and requested escorts in and out of the polling place, even though the Trump volunteers had not violated any election laws.

“We were actually trying to encourage people to vote,” said Sean Rastatter, 23, a software engineer and Fairfax County Republican who helped organize the event aimed at increasing GOP turnout. “The point of it was to remind people that early voting was taking place, since it had started a few days earlier. There wasn’t anything close to voter intimidation.” 

President Donald Trump’s growing call for an “army” of supporters to “monitor” voting has raised concerns during an already vitriolic presidential election campaign about voter intimidation and suppression of minority groups.

People holding signs in support gather near the site of the vice presidential debate.

Voting rights activists and government officials said they worry Trump’s supporters will scare away Democratic voters fearful of confrontation with his supporters, including voters from Hispanic, Black, Asian and Indigenous communities who have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic, ongoing police violence, immigration enforcement and growing rates of hate crimes under the Trump administration. 

“The rhetoric itself is suppressive,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat. “All of that taken together is aimed to suppress turnout. As elections officials, we have to clearly state that voter suppression is systemic racism.”

Trump calls for an ‘army’

In repeated tweets, speeches and paid advertisements, Trump and his campaign have called for an “army” of poll watchers to monitor contested election areas. “Fight for President Trump,” reads one ad on Twitter, directing supporters to the website “ArmyForTrump.com.”

Trump has repeatedly called the ongoing election “corrupt,” which some election experts said is aimed at reducing confidence in the overall results and dissuading some voters from even bothering to cast a ballot. That favors Trump because his core supporters, who are older, white Americans, are the most consistent voters regardless of circumstance. And those voters are also the least likely to have to wait in long lines to cast a ballot.

Trump tweeted Friday that a mistake by an elections board in Ohio in sending out ballots to the wrong voters was further evidence of a “rigged election.” The elections board said new ballots were being distributed, but Trump’s tweet is the latest in what voting experts said is a concerted effort by the president and his supporters to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election.

“My biggest concern, and both sides do this, is undermining confidence in elections across the board,” Trey Grayson, a Republican and former Kentucky secretary of state, said in a call with journalists Tuesday. “We’ve got to have people trust the outcome. The losers have to believe it was a fair fight.”

There have so far been few concrete examples of voter intimidation at polling sites. But the U.S. has a long history of violence against people of color during elections, including state and local lawmen attacking Black voting rights activists with nightsticks and tear gas in Alabama in 1965, which resulted in the passage that year of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Rastatter, the Republican from Fairfax County, said he’d never participate in anything that scared off voters. He said voter intimidation is a serious charge, and that police who investigated the incident declared no laws were broken.

“They’re calling it out before it’s even occurred,” he said of the rally’s critics. “This is one of these elections where people are so hyper partisan.”

Fearful to vote

No one expects voter intimidation tactics to halt large numbers of voters from casting ballots. But experts said the even subtle shifts in voting patterns could change the outcome of elections.

During the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush won Florida and its 25 Electoral College votes by just 537 votes.

Voter suppression could also shape races for state legislatures, which will next session use the 2020 Census results to map out election boundaries. In most states, whatever party controls the state legislature determines how those boundaries are drawn, and can use them to gerrymander favorable districts for Congress. 

“This is all, in my mind, to deter people from showing up at the polls,” said Myrna Perez, director of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Program. “These statements are designed to make people fearful to vote.”

Election experts said they are also worried about violence breaking out between the president’s supporters and voters.

Mary McCord, a former top federal prosecutor focusing on national security and a professor at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C., said her biggest fear is that armed groups of right-wing Trump supporters will “self activate” in response to Trump’s repeated calls to protect polling places.

Her concerns sharpened last week when Michigan state and federal prosecutors arrested 13 men they said were conspiring to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Prosecutors said the men discussed trying Whitmer for treason over her COVID-19 closures, which Trump also opposed. On April 17, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” as part of a series of tweets criticizing both Whitmer, a Democrat, and pandemic-related lockdowns.

Monday was the first day for advance voting in Georgia and people showed up by the hundreds to cast their ballot early at the Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Ga., Oct. 12, 2020.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, another Democrat and frequent Trump target, was also targeted by the same group, the FBI said Tuesday.

“Some people are just not very smart and buy into conspiracy theories. And some people are smart and they would happily disenfranchise voters,” McCord said. “You can’t ignore the disinformation coming straight from the president. He right now is the greatest threat to our democracy. And people do act on the things he says.”

The concerns are building at least in part due to a rise in violent hate crimes under the Trump administration. The FBI last year said that while the overall number of hate crimes dropped slightly in 2018, the number of violent hate crimes hit a 16-year high — from intimidation and assault to homicide. 

And the Department of Homeland Security in a report last month concluded that white supremacist extremists “will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.” The reports comes two weeks after Trump’s call during the first presidential debate for the far-right Proud Boys group to “stand back and stand by.” While the White House later said Trump was condemning the group, its members quickly declared they were ready to follow his orders.

“I’m concerned they’ll take the constant daily tweets about election fraud, that that’s their signal, in their view, their license to self-activate,” said McCord. “They put on this façade, these right-wing groups, that they are patriots and that they have an obligation to protect the vote or protect the election or protect the president.”

Voter fraud? No. Suppression? Yes.

Elections experts said there’s no evidence of Trump’s repeated complaints about widespread voter fraud. But fair elections are under attack. 

Grayson, the former Kentucky election official who also served as president of National Association of Secretaries of State, said it’s no secret politicians want to “shape the electorate.” It’s why liberal groups want to increase voting participation among people of color, because they tend to vote for Democrats, and why conservatives regularly target those same voters for suppression.

Until 2018, the Republican National Committee was forced to submit all of its poll-watching plans for review by a judge after getting caught hiring off-duty law enforcement officers and stationing them only in minority precincts during the 1981 New Jersey governor’s election. Those armed officers wore “National Ballot Security Task Force” armbands and demanded Black or Latino voters show voting registration cards.

Denise and Bill Hasbune, of Stone Mountain, Ga., fill out a pre-registration form while waiting in line to vote Oct. 12, 2020 at the DeKalb County elections office in Decatur, Ga. The Hasbunes arrived before 6 a.m. because they said they wanted to be sure to exercise their right to vote and didn't want to take a chance of missing the opportunity.

That poll-watching consent decree expired in 2018. And in 2013, the Supreme Court eliminated a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring areas with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before changing the rules. Fourteen states — all but one controlled by Republican legislatures — quickly toughened voter ID laws.

Republican operatives were also linked to the data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 presidential race, which targeted 3.5 million of Black Americans for “deterrence,” according to an investigation by Channel 4 News in London. The report said operatives bought Facebook advertisements aimed at dissuading Black voters from casting a ballot, rather than trying to persuade them to pick one candidate over another.

While the federal government has typically taken the lead in enforcing the Voting Rights Act, some liberal activists worry the Trump administration’s Justice Department lacks the interest to aggressively protect voting rights. 

“We understand there are folks who came before us who were literally risking their lives to vote,” said Jamal Watkins, the NAACP’s vice president of civic engagement. “This notion that violence is a ruse and not real — it scares a lot of us.”

Watkins said given the revelations about the role Cambridge Analytica played in dissuading Black voters, it’s not surprising that turnout among Black voters dropped in 2016 for the first time in 20 years during a presidential election, falling to just below 60%, according to the Pew Research Center. Black voter turnout had previously hit a record high of 66.6% in 2012, when Democrat Barack Obama, the nation’s only Black president, won a second term.

Meanwhile, a Brennan Center study found that 2018 wait times for Black and Hispanic voters averaged 45% longer than for white voters, a more subtle form of voter suppression than outright intimidation.

“We’re not blind. We see there’s an intentionality behind all of this. That’s the sad truth,” said Watkins. “This is not conspiracy theory. This is factual. We have seen it play out in what happened in 2016.”

Voting advocates say Trump has brought intimidation to new levels

Some voting rights activists said they are worried Trump’s call for poll monitors and violent rhetoric is setting an unprecedented tone.

Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Party, said part of the problem stems from a misunderstanding of what it means to be a certified poll watcher, which is a legally defined role at the county level. He said the president can’t just order supporters to look over voters’ shoulder.

“You’re not going to be allowed into the voting booth area, and you’re not going to be allowed to intimidate voters who are standing in line waiting to go vote. But when you have someone of the president’s authority saying something like that, rank-and-file Americans who support the president want to be helpful and will show up on Election Day and go ‘well, I’m here to watch the polls,'” said Steele. “And then, of course, you run into the problem of some thickheads who want to come armed to the polls, which is nothing more than intimidation.”

Six states and the District of Columbia explicitly ban guns at polling sites, and they’re also generally banned inside polling places at schools or other public property. While using a firearm to intimidate someone is illegal, simply carrying it in public doesn’t violate the law as long as the carrier maintains a certain distance from the polling site, usually 50 to 100 feet.

Susan Avery, of Brattleboro, Vt., casts her vote for Democrat presidential candidate, Joe Biden, while filling out her November election ballot that she received in the mail on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020.

In Fairfax County, election officials said social-media videos provided a misleading perspective on the Trump rally, whose participants never got closer than 100 feet to the actual polling site. Still, voting-rights advocates said what happened there offers a glimpse into potential problems as more and more Americans begin voting in person. They said voting by mail or voting early are among the best ways to avoid Election Day polling problems. And lawyers across the country are prepared to defend voters in the courts, as needed.

“We need to be ready,” Perez said. “Folks need to know their community, have a plan, be prepared for contingencies, and persist.”

Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said “targeted harassment” is very much a concern this election.

“We have enough examples in recent memory where elections have been called in states on razor-thin margins. We need to make sure everyone eligible is able to cast a vote and have that vote counted,” said Gupta, who led the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under the Obama administration. “Every single vote does matter.”

That’s why it’s critically important elections officials at all levels encourage every qualified voter to vote, said Griswold, the Colorado elections official. Like many of her colleagues, both Republican and Democrat, Griswold has repeatedly reassured voters that the process is safe, secure and trustworthy. Griswold said she particularly gets calls from Black community leaders every time Trump tweets or speaks about poll watchers.

“Voting is supposed to be the great equalizer for our communities,” she said. “Every American deserves a democracy we can believe in. And that starts at the polls.”

Voters line up in Virginia Beach, Va., for early voting Sept. 18.