Donald Trump’s claims of “large-scale” voter fraud have prompted officials across the political spectrum to warn about the dangers of vigilante poll monitors amid fears of confrontations or even violence on US election day.
As opinion polls tightened this week between Trump and Hillary Clinton ahead of Tuesday’s presidential vote, there are concerns of chaos following his claims, without serious evidence, that the election could be “rigged” and his refusal to say if he will accept the outcome.
Republican leaders in some battleground states are reporting a surge of volunteers signing up to serve as official poll watchers, and in an unprecedented move, the Trump campaign itself has since August been requesting that volunteers sign up as “election observers” to “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!”. Stone, meanwhile, has said he has helped recruit people to do “exit polls” to tackle voter fraud and denies .
The nation’s most prominent anti-government militia and a neo-Nazi group have also announced plans to send their members to monitor for voter fraud outside the polls.
The Democratic party has launched a series of legal challenges around the country alleging voter intimidation, and on Friday in the battleground state of Ohio a judge issued a temporary restraining order against Trump’s campaign and his unofficial adviser Roger Stone. The ruling said anyone who engaged in intimidation or harassment inside or near Ohio polling places would face contempt of court charges. (Read my post about this here.)
The Guardian revealed last month that a Republican operative, Mike Roman, notorious for stirring allegations of voter intimidation in the 2008 election, would coordinate the Trump monitor program, but the campaign has declined to provide details on the size and scale of the program and it remains unclear how many people will show up.
Voting rights advocates have focused on the potential threat posed by Trump supporters like the Ohio man who told a reporter he wanted to keep a close eye on “people who can’t speak American” at the polls.
While having trained partisan observers inside polling places is a normal part of the voting process, “Trump has encouraged people to go on their own and check out what’s going on in polling places”, said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California Irvine law school and one of the country’s leading election law experts. “These are going to be untrained people hyped up on what Trump has said.
“I’m worried that there are going to be confrontations and potential violence at the polls,” he said.
An attempt to blend in
The fringe groups that have announced plans to monitor for voter fraud said their members should be dressed in plainclothes and quietly watching for illegal behavior – not engaging in confrontations.
Democrats and voting rights advocates argue that poll-watching efforts are only one part of a larger Republican effort to discourage or block racial minorities from voting – and that Republican concerns over “voter fraud” are simply a mask for a broad campaign of racial disenfranchisement. The spread of laws requiring voters to show ID at the polls, restrictions on early voting times, and poll location closures are all designed to disadvantage racial minorities who tend to vote for Democrats, advocates say.
The NAACP filed a new lawsuit against North Carolina this week alleging that black voters were being disproportionately purged from the state’s voter rolls. “This sounds like something that was put together in 1901,” a federal judge said at an emergency hearing, calling the purging process “insane”.
The judge issued an order Friday finding that the purge likely violated the National Voter Registration Act, and ordered that state elections officials “take all steps necessary to restore the voter registrations that were canceled.”
Trump’s repeated, unprecedented claims that the election has already been “rigged” against him have given new fuel to conservative claims that non-citizens are voting and that votes are being stolen on a massive scale. In a “new effort”, the National Socialist Movement, a white nationalist, neo-Nazi organization, is planning to send out hundreds of members to watch for voter fraud outside polling places in 48 states, with a focus on California, Illinois, Florida and Michigan, Butch Urban, the group’s chief of staff, said.
Members would not be wearing their uniforms or National Socialist Movement gear. “They’re going to look like everybody else that’s going in there to vote,” Urban said.
He called voter fraud “so rampant”, and said the group would have lawyers on call.
The president of one of America’s largest anti-government armed militia groups, the Oath Keepers, called on members last week to take part in undercover poll-watching under the moniker of “Operation Sabot 2016”.
In a bizarre set of instructions to the group’s reported 30,000 members – an organization of “current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders” – Stewart Rhodes, a former US army paratrooper, also encouraged members to “blend in” among voters and attempt to record evidence of widespread voter fraud.
“That may mean wearing a Bob Marley, pot leaf, tie-die [sic] peace symbol, or ‘Che’ Guevara T-Shirt, etc,” Rhodes, who declined to be interviewed, wrote in an online callout to members.
Rhodes wrote that members should not openly carry their guns – “We do NOT want open-carry (remember, again, that this is a covert operation)” – and that they should be aware of laws barring even concealed gun carrying in polling places.
A rigged election? Nyah. Intimidation, blockades, delays, etc can’t possibly be considered rigging an election if you are a Republican doing it.
At least comedians will have something to laugh about for the next four years if Trump gets elected.