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The Trump Campaign Is Deploying “Army” of Poll Watchers to Intimidate Voters

Far right groups are recruiting hundreds of volunteers to show up physically at polling places.

Far right groups are recruiting hundreds of volunteers to show up physically at polling places.

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From his presidential suite at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday, President Trump called on his supporters to sign up to volunteer as poll watchers, sharing a link to the URL in a tweet many have criticized as an effort to incite voter intimidation on Election Day.

The tweet follows Trump’s remarks from the debate stage last week in which he called on the far right group Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” further emboldening the organization, which law enforcement officials say is actively planning efforts to mobilize at polling locations.

Trump’s call is just the latest effort to ramp up the campaign’s recruitment of 50,000 partisan poll watchers to deploy in key battleground precincts around the country to conduct “ballot security” operations.

Poll watchers, also known as “challengers,” are most often appointed by a political party or candidate ostensibly to ensure election laws, including important laws prohibiting electioneering near polling places, are being observed. However, Trump’s “poll watchers” will instead likely have the effect of intimidating voters of color under the guise of protecting against virtually nonexistent “voter fraud.”

In a recent campaign video, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., employed similarly combative language when describing the role of the campaign’s poll watchers, asking reelection supporters to join the “army for Trump’s election security operation,” saying, “We need you to help us watch them, not just on Election Day, but also during early voting and at the counting boards.”

The recruiting efforts come as the Trump campaign files suit against the city of Philadelphia, arguing that its policy of barring poll watchers from newly opened satellite election offices violates Pennsylvania law.

The campaign filed the lawsuit last week after a campaign volunteer who claimed to be a poll watcher was blocked from entering a newly opened West Philadelphia satellite election office that allows voters to apply for mail-in ballots and then submit them on site, if they choose.

Three city commissioners responded to the suit, arguing that the Trump campaign has no standing because the volunteer did not have a required poll watcher certificate and that even if she had, poll watchers aren’t allowed to be present at these satellite offices because they aren’t technically polling places.

City officials also argued that Trump’s comments during last Tuesday’s debate and his campaign’s subsequent actions show that he is trying to intimidate Philadelphia’s predominantly Democratic voters. Trump falsely claimed that the campaign’s poll watchers had been blocked from observing the first day of in-person early voting in the city and that voter fraud is rampant there, saying, “bad things happen in Philadelphia.”

Under Pennsylvania law, candidates can appoint two poll watchers in each election precinct in which they’re running, and political parties can appoint three. Boards of election must approve poll watchers in the county in which they’re serving and watchers must also be registered to vote in that same county. They can be present inside polling locations and formally challenge the eligibility of voters.

The lawsuit is the second filed in the state by the Trump campaign in an effort to expand poll watching privileges and limit how counties can collect and count mail-in ballots. In June, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee (RNC) sued Pennsylvania’s top elections official, arguing that poll watcher residency requirements are unconstitutional, as is the practice of not classifying sites where mail-in voting takes place as polling sites.

The lawsuit was put on hold by a federal judge to give time for the state court system to weigh in. In early September, that happened: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the election observer residency requirement was indeed constitutional, citing the fact that elections are county-run, dealing a blow to the Trump effort.

For the past four decades, the RNC had been limited in its ability to engage in poll watching operations after New Jersey Republicans hired county deputy sheriffs and local police outfitted with revolvers and two-way radios who turned away a New Jersey voter from a polling location in 1981.

A 1982 consent decree barred the party from intimidating voters of color and deputizing off-duty police as poll watchers. That decree expired in 2018. Consequently, the 2020 presidential election is the first in nearly 40 years at which the RNC is no longer bound by the terms of the decree, and the party is spending millions on a renewed voter suppression scheme involving thousands of poll observers targeting predominantly Black precincts in Philadelphia.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said during a recent call that the organization is particularly worried about how the Trump campaign is already deploying its so-called “poll watchers” in Philadelphia.

“The elimination of the RNC consent decree has resulted in open season for operatives who seek to exploit this moment,” she said. “We’re particularly concerned that these individuals are being deployed intentionally to communities that are home to large numbers of Black and Latino voters.”

Further, far right extremist groups are employing the Trump campaign’s language of poll watching to recruit hundreds of volunteers to show up physically to polling places — many of them energized in their efforts after Trump’s “stand back and stand by” remarks.

Former FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence Frank Figliuzzi told reporters that law enforcement agencies and private intelligence firms who are monitoring the public and private communications of far right groups including the Proud Boys are seeing increased planning and encouragement of members to show up physically at the polls after Trump’s call to action.

“Right-wing extremist groups including QAnon, Proud Boys, Boogaloo boys and violent militia groups are all using the language of violent conflict in their public and in their private communication online,” Figliuzzi said. “What we’re seeing include calls for civil war and race-based conflict through increased acquisition of weapons … and also calling for a physical response and presence at polling places.”

Figliuzzi cited specific posts from members of the Proud Boys and Boogaloo movement in particular planning for rallies and training sessions on how to turn out at polling places. These communications, he said, have become energized by Trump’s debate response.

According to Figliuzzi, even after the president denounced the Proud Boys last Thursday, the group perceived the comments as something Trump “had to do,” and were not discouraged but rather, seemed to become emboldened even further to take action.

“The specter of people who are violent in nature and have violent agendas and often come armed with long guns is becoming a very real possibility” at the polls, he told reporters.

But even unarmed Trump supporters are already causing problems. In September, about 20 Trump supporters descended on a polling booth in Fairfax, Virginia, after a “Trump Train” parade, intimidating early voters and election staff with chants of “Four more years, four more years!” while driving circles around some voters. Election officials had to provide escorts for voters and move the line indoors.

The Lawyers Committee’s Clarke and other civil rights advocates are calling on state attorneys general and local district attorneys to enforce state statues prohibiting electioneering and voter intimidation at polling places, particularly, she said, in light of the Justice Department’s inaction.

Clarke said her organization has lawyers in more than 30 states who are poised to take legal action and who are actively talking to election officials to resolve potential problems. The Committee has more than 21,000 lawyers ready to combat voter intimidation, she said.

Moreover, Trump’s debate comments have prompted the city of Philadelphia to develop an “interagency plan” to prevent the president’s supporters from intimidating voters at the polls after Trump urged them from the debate stage “to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” even though his campaign has no certified poll watchers approved to work in Philadelphia at the moment.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said that while the city welcomes official, certified poll watchers, police may need to intervene to stop uncertified monitors who show up at polling places if their presence has the effect of intimidating voters.

Most states allow certified poll watchers at voting sites. Poll watchers are typically appointed by candidates, political parties or political action committees, and their primary purpose “is to ensure that their party has a fair chance of winning an election,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In some states, poll watchers are allowed to formally challenge a voter’s eligibility.

Due to the U.S.’s decentralized election administration system, rules determining poll watchers’ qualifications, powers, proximity to polling places, numbers, and whether they can be partisan, as well as which aspects of the electoral process they can observe, vary widely from state to state.

According to a survey of poll watcher statutes conducted by the University of Georgia, many states’ statutes concerning partisan poll watchers are troublingly lax, inviting abuses or manipulation of voters by partisan political actors.

States with permissive rules such as Arizona can allow partisan poll watchers to orally challenge voters. Moreover, the basis upon which watchers can challenge voters is, in some cases, very broad, such as in Missouri, which allows challenges to election law generally.

Many states prohibit any direct interaction between watchers and voters, and permit only written challenges that must be submitted to and reviewed by an election official. However, Pennsylvania — where Trump is asking poll watchers to target predominantly Black precincts — allows partisan poll watchers to directly interact with voters.

Other statutes can be permissive in ways that allow partisan poll watchers to potentially violate the privacy of the voting booth itself, such as Louisiana’s statute that allows poll watchers “within all parts of the polling place.” Most other states have a rule stipulating that watchers must be a certain distance from voting booths.

While some states require poll watchers to attend training sessions that provide information regarding who is eligible to vote and the proper challenge procedures, many states require no such training at all.

Arkansas, Colorado and Iowa allow challenges based simply on a watcher’s suspicion that a voter isn’t properly registered or is otherwise ineligible. These broad rules have led to incidents in which observers’ prejudices have fueled challenges to eligible voters of color. A poll watcher cannot know, for instance, whether a prospective voter has lived in the state for the required length of time, whether they have a felony record or whether they are a U.S. citizen, simply by observing them.

Moreover, as Laura Williamson, a senior policy analyst at Demos, points out, states vary not only in terms of what laws are on the books but also what actually happens in practice. “The laws are all fine and good, but they’re only as good as they’re enforced, and we know that in places that are hostile to certain voters casting their fundamental right to vote, the laws on the books don’t actually matter that much,” Williamson said.

She pointed to rural counties in which there may be no separation between law enforcement and election officials who are also members of partisan poll watching groups or other unofficial groups affiliated with the Trump campaign.

“I actually don’t think a lot of the laws on the books are enough, in terms of the gap between the protection on the books and then how that actually stops people who’ve been so clearly emboldened by the president,” Williamson said. “Even if you have strong laws on the books, it’s predicated on people knowing their rights and pushing back against violent intimidation, which is a tall order.”

Additionally, with 41 states allowing voters to vote absentee for any reason, new questions may arise in regard to the role of poll watchers in observing how mail-in ballots are counted in some states that have vastly increased their use of such ballots. In states such as Oregon and Washington that primarily conduct their elections by mail, observers can watch ballots get counted and processed by a county clerk instead of watching voters vote at the polls.

Williamson also pointed to a process known as “voter caging” in which poll challengers attempt to invalidate voters by sending direct mail to the addresses of registered voters and compiling a list of addressees from which the mail is returned undelivered, arguing that the returned mail is proof that the voter doesn’t live there. Williamson says this is often an inaccurate way to determine eligibility for several reasons, including the fact that voters frequently move within the same jurisdictions. The practice, however, is happening in greater proportion this year because of states’ reliance on mail-in voting due to the pandemic, she says.

Meanwhile, pandemic-related travel restrictions mean that only a small fraction of the international election observers that are normally present to monitor the U.S. election will be present this year.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s election monitoring body, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, was initially planning to send 500 long-term and short-term observers due to increased concerns about the integrity of the 2020 election. The office dramatically scaled back the initiative and is now sending only 30 long-term observers from 13 member states.

With fewer checks in place this election cycle, progressive groups and other organizations mobilizing “election defenders” to de-escalate tense situations at polling locations may prove crucial to helping protect against efforts to intimidate voters.