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Republican Poll Watchers Make Their Return in Virginia Gubernatorial Race

Many of the poll watchers are trained and organized by the Youngkin campaign.

Supporters hold up signs as Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks at a campaign rally on October 29, 2021, in Warrenton, Virginia.

There’s just one day to go before the much anticipated Virginia gubernatorial race will be decided, and since the polls say it’s close, I think we can expect some MAGA fireworks whether their candidate, Glenn Youngkin, wins or loses.

If they lose, we know that they will say the vote was rigged. If Youngkin wins, Donald Trump’s Big Lie will be equally well-served. They will say it’s because of the vigilance of the hordes of Republican poll watchers who are set to descend upon polling places on Election Day. Trump made clear what he wanted last year at the presidential debate and they will not let him down this time:

“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. 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. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia.”

He was lying, however, as usual.

One woman who claimed she was working for the Trump campaign had complained that she was not allowed in a satellite early voting location. However, she did not have an official certificate because, by law, no poll watchers were authorized at such locations. Trump was likely under the assumption that he could just send his MAGA mob to storm the polling places, no questions asked. And a spate of new election laws being enacted by Republican state legislatures are essentially making that reality now.

Trump’s comments during that debate set off election officials’ alarm bells all over the country. What Trump was describing is better known as voter intimidation. Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford tweeted the next day, “Voter intimidation is illegal in Nevada. Believe me when I say it: You do it, and you will be prosecuted.” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said that the president’s loose talk was dangerous, adding:

“The President is blatantly urging his supporters to congregate at polling places, go inside, and ostensibly harass and intimidate voters.While there are authorized ‘poll watchers’ who monitor polls on Election Day, their duties are clearly laid out, and they do not include what President Trump has suggested.”

There were some poll watching shenanigans on election day in 2020, but the Big Lie launched the GOP into action.

Last May, The New York Times reported a national program to train tens of thousands of MAGA faithful to “watch.” The report highlighted one recruitment seminar in which a precinct chair in a white suburb of Houston exhorted volunteers to go into the Black, Asian and Latino areas on election day because “that’s where the fraud is occuring.” That is not true, of course. But it illustrates what they actually have in mind: suppression and intimidation of racial and ethnic minority voters, particularly in urban areas.

That is nothing new. Partisans used such tactics for centuries. I wrote about this years ago here on Salon, including the stunning tale of former Chief Justice William Rehnquist who, as a young lawyer in Arizona, personally applied some ugly racist intimidation against Latino and Black voters in the 1964 presidential campaign. The GOP ran the program in which he participated called “Operation Eagle Eye” throughout the nation.

While researching his book on the Goldwater campaign, called Before the Storm, historian Rick Perlstein unearthed a memo written by a Lyndon Johnson staffer outlining the scheme:

“Let’s get this straight, the Democratic Party is just as much opposed to vote frauds as is the Republican party. We will settle for giving all legally registered voters an opportunity to make their choice on November 3rd. We have enough faith in our Party to be confident that the outcome will be a vote of confidence in President Johnson and a mandate for the President and his running mate, Hubert Humphrey, to continue the programs of the Johnson-Kennedy Administration.

But we have evidence that the Republican program is not really what it purports to be. It is an organized effort to prevent the foreign born, to prevent Negroes, to prevent members of ethnic minorities from casting their votes by frightening and intimidating them at the polling place.”

I bring this up again because it’s important to remember that Trump didn’t invent this stuff. He’s never done anything original in his life. People have been at this for a very long time. Trump’s just supercharged it.

Over the past half century, the nation had made great strides in controlling the threat of poll watcher intimidation. The majority of states put laws in place to ensure that people felt safe at their polling places. The problem was pretty much snuffed out for several decades. But now it’s back.

The Washington Post reports that Virginia has poll watchers by the hundreds ready to go Tuesday. In fact, they have already been on the job during the early voting. In Democratic counties, the poll watchers are 2-1 Republican, many of them trained and organized by the Youngkin campaign. The candidate, who insists he’s not a MAGA kind of guy, has been pushing the voter fraud myth like crazy and his voters are out in force. One of the Virginia groups doing training was created by a Republican candidate who lost his election by 23 points in 2020 and refused to concede. According to the Post, other groups involved in similar activities throughout the country are Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Limited Government, No Left Turn in Education and Alliance for Free Citizens, led by former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, a vote fraud zealot who Trump once enlisted to prove that Hillary Clinton didn’t win the popular vote in 2016. (Needless to say, he failed.) Another group called The Virginia Project, a purveyor of the Big Lie, has been subtly intimidating election officials. At one of its meetings, Joe Flynn, the brother of General Michael Flynn, asked the crowd if they believe Joe Biden won the state of Virginia in 2020. The crowd roared, “No!” Biden won the state by 10 points.

Glenn Youngkin may very well win the election tomorrow. The polls are neck and neck. And if he does, the pundits and analysts will immediately construct a narrative that tells us the national implications of the GOP victory. But the right’s narrative will be that they were able to keep the Democrats from stealing the election the way they stole 2020 and they’ll double their efforts around the country. The Big Lie will be validated one way or the other.

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