Donald Trump renewed calls this weekend for supporters to travel to precincts outside their own Nov. 8 to keep a vigilant eye out for voter fraud.
“We don’t want to lose an election because you know what I’m talking about,” the Republican presidential candidate told an overwhelmingly white crowd in Manheim, Pa. on Saturday. “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.”
Saturday was the second night in a row Mr. Trump urged supporters to poll watch, adding on to his repeated warnings in August that the election is “rigged” because of voter fraud. But Trump’s exhortations concern voters’ rights advocates who fear amateur poll watchers could intimidate and even harass minority voters.
The conflict, then, shows the difficulty with the practice: can Republican poll watchers “safeguard democracy,” as one exponent in Louisville said in 2004, without reverting to voter intimidation, particularly if they raise challenges at polls based on voters’ race, religion, or ethnicity?
“There’s actually a risk that, in a more disorganized way, people are going to be showing up to the polls, they won’t know the law, and they’ll be engaging in discriminatory challenges,” Adam Gatlin, counsel for the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, told ProPublica earlier this month. “That can create the potential for a lot of disruption, longer lines because each voter takes longer to vote, and potentially discouraging and intimidating voters from coming to the polls.”
Poll watchers can’t go near voters as they vote, but they can watch them check-in, according to Politico. Indeed, partisan poll watchers alert their parties who hasn’t voted so they can encourage loyalists to get to the polls.
But Trump appears to have encouraged crowds in rural Pennsylvania this weekend to become polling station watchdogs. But he didn’t elaborate on what they should watch for, only that they should “watch carefully, because we’re going to win the state of Pennsylvania,” according to The Washington Post.
In August, Trump repeatedly said that without tougher voter ID laws like the one a federal appeals court struck down in North Carolina because they found it discriminatory, voters could vote 10 or 15 times for his opponent, a claim Politifact, a project that fact-checks political statements, labeled "pants on fire."
He has also claimed dead voters handed President Obama the 2012 election, and suggested undocumented immigrants “just walk in and vote” in some polling places.
Voting rights advocates took Trump’s message this weekend as a “subtle menacing call for his supports to intimidate at the polls,” according to the Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson.
US Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey told the Star-Ledger calling fraud at the polls a serious problem was “a patent lie.”
“You have a better chance of being struck by lightning,” said Mr. Booker in an interview published Sunday. “People don’t just get up in the morning and suddenly think to themselves, ‘I’m going to commit voter fraud.’ It is a rare, rare occurrence.”
“Actions are being taken that are consciously being done to suppress the voting of poor folks, of minorities, and others,” he said.
Several studies have found American voter fraud is minuscule. A national study by News 21 found only 10 cases of fraud by misrepresentation from 2000 to 2012. That’s 1 in every 15 million eligible voters, wrote Politico. A 2014 study by Justin Levitt, then a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, and now the Obama administration’s top voting rights lawyer in the Justice Department, found 31 credible allegations of voter fraud from 2000 to 2014 out of more than one billion total votes cast.
But a majority of Trump supporters remain distrustful of elections. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll released Friday found only about one-third of respondents who identify as Republicans have confidence in the vote count. Of Hillary Clinton supporters, 59 percent said they have quite a bit or a great deal of confidence in the election.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released earlier in September found of the 46 percent who said voter fraud often occurred, 61 percent were Trump supporters. Of the 50 percent who said it was rare, 67 percent supported Clinton.
But poll watching is a way for some to feel they are safeguarding democracy, as the Christian Science Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson reported when he wrote about the Kentucky governor race in 2004. Jay O’Brien, a Lousiville money manager, told Mr. Jonsson he poll watches because he is “looking, after all, for felons, foreigners, or anyone else not eligible to vote.”
Mr. O’Brien also said he is helping correct a wrong, the lack of GOP poll workers, especially in mostly-black neighborhoods by the Ohio River.
"This is not a covert designation," he said. "It's as much a part of the election process as ... any other official. In my view, this whole challenge role is being really twisted."
Poll watching by private citizens is legal in 46 states, according to a 2012 survey by the Brennan Center, as ProPublica reported. At least 32 states and the District of Columbia also allow political party designees to raise challenges on Election Day, according to a ProPublica review of state statutes. The problem is many of these states don’t need much evidence to bring a challenge forward.
This conflicted has created an arms race of sorts between the two sides.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law plans to recruit as many as 5,000 nonpartisan poll watchers and call center volunteers, Kristen Clarke, the executive director, told ProPublica. The group runs the largest nonpartisan election-monitoring program in the country, she said.
True the Vote, another organization that bills itself as nonpartisan, but is an offshoot of a Houston Tea Party group, conducts in-person and online poll-watching training sessions, and has even created a smartphone app that allows users to send in reports of election irregularities.