Donald Trump calls for election observers: Will that protect or taint the results?

Following a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, the Department of Justice plans to send fewer official election observers to monitor the polls for voter intimidation and suppression. Will Donald Trump's volunteer poll watchers help?

Mark A Large/The Daily Times/AP
People cast their ballots during early voting at Blount County Library in Maryville, Tenn., on Wednesday.

Fewer specially-trained election observers will monitor the polls for instances of voter intimidation this year for the first time in half a century, leading many to wonder if the integrity of the 2016 vote is at risk.

Voting rights advocates worry that the lack of observers will hinder the Justice Department’s ability to detect and counter instances of voter intimidation at the polls that can hamper minorities’ rights to cast their ballots. The issue, coupled with Republican nominee Donald Trump’s unbacked, yet insistent, claim that widespread voter fraud will occur at the polls this year, has advocates worried that voter suppression and intimidation in 2016 could mirror that of the nearly century-long struggle minority voters faced between earning the right to vote and receiving protections under the Voting Rights Act.

Rumors of election rigging have become rampant, with Mr. Trump encouraging his supporters to go out to the polls and look for instances of fraud on their own, a suggestion which could have serious implications for voting integrity. 

“These are people with a partisan ax to grind with no training, and that enhances the possibility of voter intimidation and illegal activities,” Daniel McCool, a political science professor at the University of Utah, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “The stakes have gone up dramatically.”

The lower number of election observers at the polls this year comes after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The 2013 decision nullified Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required voting districts with a history of creating unfair hurdles for minorities to obtain federal approval for any voting law changes, and allowed the federal government to dispatch election observers to such polling places.

Trump and some of his key supporters have told voters that he can only lose certain states, such as Pennsylvania, if Democrats falsify the results in key districts. While experts, including many Republicans, have acknowledged that there’s no evidence of imminent voter fraud, Trump has urged his supporters to sign up as “poll watchers” on his campaign website, where they agree to spend the day at polling sites looking for suspicious or fraudulent activity.

“We don’t want to lose an election because you know what I’m talking about,” he told a predominately white crowd in Manheim, Pa., earlier this month. “Because you know what? That’s a big, big problem, and nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody has the guts to talk about it. So go and watch these polling places.”

His implication that minority voters need extra oversight has many critics worried that his supporters might go too far.

“The way in which Mr. Trump is talking about engaging observers is that there may be some overzealousness,” Nicole Austin-Hillery, the director and counsel for The Brennan Center for Justice’s Washington, D.C. office, tells the Monitor. “If that is not the case, then that is absolutely fine. Observers should be encouraged to be in polling places and have the right and responsibility to be there.”

Some Trump supporters have said they now see it as their job to not only cast a vote for him but also to intimidate those who may vote against him, which is illegal.

“Trump said to watch your precincts. I’m going to go, for sure,” Steve Webb, a 61-year-old carpenter from Fairfield, Ohio, told The Boston Globe last week. “I’ll look for ... well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American. I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”

Unlike these Trump-inspired poll watchers, federal election observers are pulled from a wide array of agencies and have no ties to state or local parties. On Election Day, they’re dispatched to watch, listen, and record anything suspicious they see at a polling place, and they have the authority to intervene when they see instances of suppression and intimation. And it has worked.

Constance Slaughter-Harvey, a former election official from Forest, Miss., testified before Congress in 2006 that “when local election officials are placed on notice that their actions … are being monitored, there have been noticeable and significant improvements in the quality of the electoral process.”

Election observers have cracked down on officials in districts where minorities were arrested outside of polling places for minor traffic violations, ensured that voters in need of translation had the proper materials, and stopped intimidation by white voters. They first assumed their posts following the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and for nearly 50 years they countered roadblocks put in place to stop minorities from voting.

Now, people could feel the brunt of new voter ID laws, which require voters to show specific forms of approved identification before voting, passed by many state legislatures that cited fears of voter fraud.

"Voter ID laws have a high potential for abuse," says Dr. McCool, who authored the 2012 book, "The Most Fundamental Right: Contrasting Perspectives on the Voting Rights Act."

"If there's no observers there and there's a new Voter ID law in place, somebody can say, 'Well, that doesn't look like you, so I'm not going to let you vote.' "

While 2016 is the first presidential election cycle since the 2013 Shelby ruling, several local elections have taken place in the intervening years, and Ms. Austin-Hillery says the Brennan Center has already seen some complications from implemented voter ID laws without federal observers in place to serve as a safeguard.

Before 2013, "there was a great deal of confidence because we had so many observers in place working with the Department of Justice – observers we knew were ready to deal with any issues as they occurred on Election Day," she says. In the years since, "voters have been experiencing some issues. We fear that some of those have arisen as a result of not having those protections in place."

The Justice Department plans to send observers to several jurisdictions that remain subject to a federal court order allowing their presence, including Alameda County in California, St. Landry Parish in Louisiana, Orange County in New York, and some regions in Alaska. While the final numbers haven’t been released, the department expects to send fewer than the 780 observers it dispatched to 17 jurisdictions in 10 states in 2012.

Some of these dispatched will be poll monitors, instead of observers, who lack the authority to do anything but report instances of intimidation.

Without federal observers to intervene, voters who face intimidation or obstruction can only file lawsuits after the fact, a lengthy and expensive process that won't add lost votes back into the election.

Meanwhile, poll workers in some parts of the nation are preparing for the worst. The extremely polarizing race has led some to worry about potential violence at the polls, after a GOP headquarters in North Carolina was firebombed last week.

"You know, it's unfortunate that we have to do this, but we want to be overly prepared," Amber McReynolds, the director of elections for the city and county of Denver, told NPR. "We have added in an active shooter training into our election judge training."

While the thought of violence at the polls seems staggering to many white Americans, voting has frequently proven dangerous for people of color.

"It’s un-American, but at the same time we have a long history of doing things like that," says Ari Berman, author of the 2016 book, "Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America," in an interview with the Monitor.

"Voting was very, very dangerous," he says. "I don't think anyone’s suggesting that we’re at the same place today. I just think the loss of the DOJ is going to be really problematic."

As McCool notes, it’s not just southern jurisdictions where minorities may be at risk this year. Native American voters have historically fallen victim to voter ID laws and voter intimidation, while Trump has specifically pointed out Philadelphia as a city where he claims voter fraud could occur.

“It’s not a problem with the [southern states],” he says. “It’s a problem with people who want to suppress the vote. And unfortunately they're scattered throughout the nation.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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