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  • Jaliana Griesbach

Trump’s Call for Poll Watchers Sparks Concerns Over Voter Intimidation

At the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump encouraged his supporters to go watch the polling places, citing fears of voter fraud and miscounted ballots. Democrats pushed back against Trump, claiming poll watchers will increase instances of voter intimidation that have stained U.S. elections in the past and disproportionately target voters of color.

Poll watchers are an ordinary aspect of polling precincts. Their primary purpose is to ensure their party has a fair chance at winning an election. They closely monitor the administration of precincts and track voter turnout for their party. Poll watchers must be identified and approved prior to the election.

Each state has their own set of regulations on the number of poll watchers per precinct, who can be a poll watcher and what they are allowed to do. It’s also important to note that most states do not allow law enforcement officers or state officials to serve as poll watchers, as Trump encouraged in the past.

Each state agrees that poll watchers are not allowed to interfere with the electoral process apart from reporting issues to polling place authorities and party officials. It’s worth noting that in addition to poll watchers, some states permit registered voters to challenge an individual’s eligibility on Election Day. They are not poll watchers, and challenging a person’s voting eligibility is their only duty.

Democrats’ main concern with poll watchers is that they intimidate voters, which is prohibited under federal law. The RNC, however, has a history of establishing their own ballot security forces, causing voter intimidation. In 1981, Democrats accused the Republican National Committee of voter intimidation after they organized a group called the “National Ballot Security Task Force.”

Some of the task force members were armed, off-duty law enforcement officers who went to predominantly-minority polling places. The Democratic National Committee filed a federal suit against the RNC, charging that the group harassed and intimidated Black and Hispanic voters.

The following year, the RNC entered into a consent decree, declaring no wrongdoing, but pledging in the Federal District Court that it would not allow tactics anywhere in the country that intimidates Democratic voters. Under this pledge, the RNC allowed a federal court to review any ballot security measures they put in place. Other cases of voter intimidation have been brought to court in the past 20 years.

In 2004, South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle sued the RNC, accusing it of sending people to follow Native Americans to their cars at polling places and record their license plate. In other cases, the people stood close to Native American voters, taking notes and attempting to deter them from voting.

In 2008, the RNC was sued for hiring private agents to look into the private information of Hispanic voters in New Mexico. The agents publicized the voters’ information, including their Social Security numbers, home address, and credit card statements. Some agents showed up at the homes of the voters and interrogated them about their citizenship status.

The consent decree that expanded throughout the years as a result of RNC violations expired in 2018 after a federal court denied Democrats’ motion to extend it.

The 2020 presidential election will be the first since 1980 without the decree in effect. In response, the RNC organized a multi-million dollar effort to monitor polling places. It is aiming to recruit 50,000 volunteers as poll watchers, and has budgeted $20 million in legal funds for potential suits, all in an effort to curtail voter fraud.

Republicans have long claimed voter fraud is a serious problem in the United States. Trump convened a commission to investigate voter fraud after the 2016 election, in which he claimed without proof that between 3 million and 5 million ballots were illegally cast.

The commission, led by Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State of Kansas Kris Kobach, said there were more than 1,000 convictions of voter fraud since 1948 and 8,400 instances of double-voting among 20 states in the 2016 election. These numbers were not presented in the official report by the commission, and Kobach had no contributing evidence to his claims of double voting.

Although instances of voter fraud occur, they are small and isolated, and there are practices in place to prevent widespread fraud that would harm the fairness of elections, according to a study by Columbia University.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, voter intimidation reports, on the other hand, were up from the 2012 election. The nonpartisan Election Protection Hotline received more than 4,000 calls reporting complaints of voter intimidation and suppression on Election Day in 2012.

Many groups in the U.S. work to prevent voter intimidation, including Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams. Abrams lost her bid for governor of Georgia in a close race clouded by allegations of voter suppression.

Fair Fight Action also partners with Our Vote Election Protection to educate voters on their state’s election process and provide them with a hotline to report voter intimidation and other issues.

In response to the Trump campaign’s efforts to organize poll watchers, the Biden campaign recruited 600 voting rights lawyers and 10,000 volunteers to monitor the polls.

While poll watchers are commonplace in U.S. elections, it remains to be seen whether Trump’s call to supporters will prevent voter fraud or increase voter intimidation in the 2020 election.


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