Why voting rights groups are facing pressure in the upcoming election

Across the United States, concerns over Trump's rigged-election rhetoric has prompted concerns that overzealous Trump supporters could intimidate voters in a year with a significantly decreased amount of federal election observers.

Steven Senne/AP
Early voting poll worker Elizabeth Young, of Worcester, Mass., (c.), hands out ballots at an early voting location on Monday, in Worcester, Mass.

As the country gears up for Election Day, concerns over Donald Trump's "rigged election" rhetoric have created concerns about polling locations across the United States on November 8, with Mr. Trump encouraging his supporters to "watch the polls" to prevent voter fraud. Critics claim that voter fraud is not a statistically significant problem and that Trump's "poll watchers" could be a potentially hazardous intimidation tactic.

To combat the possibility of voter intimidation, especially during the first presidential election following the 2013 Supreme Court curtailment of the Voting Rights Act, many voting rights groups are stepping up to make sure the election goes smoothly and fairly. Most recently, advocates in California announced that they will monitor more polling places than usual in that state, joining a nationwide movement to combat potential voter suppression.

As one of the most divisive political contests in US history draws to a close, these monitors will have their work cut out for them, contending with confusion over new voting requirements in many locations, a significant decrease in federal polling oversight, and flaring tempers on both sides of the aisle.

Trump has compounded the "rigged election" claims with the controversial statement that he would only accept the election results "if I win," prompting concerns that such a position will lead his supporters to distrust the US democratic process. Trump has called on supporters help root out voter fraud, even though a national study conducted earlier this year found only 31 credible cases of voter fraud in the United States, out of a billion votes cast. Critics claim that in light of the negligible threat presented by voter fraud, unqualified Trump supporters monitoring polls only serve to intimidate voters who plan to vote against him in November.

"Poll watchers left unchecked may unfairly target minority voters," Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Bloomberg. "It creates the potential for a lot of mischief, chaos, and disruption on Election Day."

Another difficulty for nonpartisan poll observers stems from the lack of federal observers at polling places across the country. As the Christian Science Monitor's Amanda Hoover explained:

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.

Over the past 50 years, these observers have helped ensure that minorities were not discriminated against or intimidated in polling areas such as the South, which systematically tried to suppress black votes under various Jim Crow laws for decades. There will still be federal observers in some areas, but for the most part, federal monitors will not be allowed inside polling locations.

"In the past, we have ... relied heavily on election observers, specially trained individuals who are authorized to enter polling locations and monitor the process to ensure that it lives up to its legal obligations," Attorney General Loretta Lynch told a Latino civil rights group over the summer, according to The Washington Post. "Our ability to deploy them has been severely curtailed."

The weakening of the Voting Rights Act has also led to many states instituting new requirements to vote, such as voter ID laws that tend to disproportionately affect minorities, who are incidentally more likely to vote against Trump.

In order to fill the gap left by federal election observers and counter overzealous Trump supporters, many voting rights groups are training poll watchers to do what they can in order to keep the process fair and safe for voters. Groups such as Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the League of Latin American Citizens, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice will dispatch monitors to more locations than usual on Election Day.

Many Republican officials claim that concerns about voter intimidation are unfounded, despite Trump's rhetoric. Deanna Kitamura, voting rights project director for the Los Angeles chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, told a local CBS affiliate that while poll monitors do not necessarily expect any extra trouble in November, they want to be ready just in case.

"But given the rhetoric, we’re concerned people will go beyond what is legal and try to question every person who fits a particular type of profile, to see if they can legally vote or not," she said.

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