Could the RNC pay for Trump's 'rigged' election claims?

The Democratic National Committee has filed suit against the Republican National Committee, claiming its ties to Donald Trump and his push for poll watchers could violate a decades-old legal agreement meant to prevent voter intimidation.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump rallies with supporters at the Million Air Orlando airplane hangar in Sanford, Fla., on Tuesday.

The Democratic National Committee has requested that a federal judge block efforts by the Republican National Committee to coordinate with Donald Trump as he calls for poll watchers amid claims the election is "rigged" against him. That tactic, the DNC alleges, violates a more than 30-year-old legal agreement meant to keep GOP operatives in line at the polls. 

Mr. Trump has said Hillary Clinton will defeat him only if voter fraud and other illicit activity at polling places takes place, catapulting the issue of ballot security issues to national attention. While evidence to support those arguments is largely lacking, 43 percent of Trump’s pledged voters say they’ll believe the Republican candidate was cheated out of the election if he loses, according to a Wednesday poll from USA Today/Suffolk University. Some fear that claims of a “rigged election” may spur overzealous Trump supporters to engage in activities that could constitute illegal voter intimidation tactics.

Now, Democrats are saying that GOP involvement in any such tactics could violate a 1982 consent decree that bars Republicans from using strategies that intimidate minority voters, and Republicans are trying to steer clear of Trump's assertions. 

"Here, the RNC is trying to distance itself as far as it can from Trump’s specific calls for poll watching," Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine tells The Christian Science Monitor. "The legal questions is whether Trump has crossed the line. I think there’s a good argument that he has.”  

The suit, filed Wednesday in a federal court in New Jersey, alleges that the GOP has violated the decree "by supporting and enabling the efforts of the Republican candidate for President, Donald J. Trump, as well as his campaign and advisors, to intimidate and discourage minority voters from voting in the 2016 Presidential Election."

The long-standing decree is slated to expire next December, but any violation on the part of Republicans could result in an eight-year extension of the restrictions. Republicans have argued that the decree is "antiquated" and used by Democrats for their own favor, but it has withstood test in the courts.  

"Even though the decree started in the '80s, the parties fought over it in the 2000s," Dr. Hasen says. "The RNC’s activities continued to merit the imposition of the decree. This is not just based on conduct from the 1980s."

The 1982 decree was put into place after state Republicans in New Jersey interfered with the 1981 gubernatorial election by sending letters to neighborhoods where many black and Hispanic voters lived and later challenging the voting status of anyone whose mail was returned. GOP operatives then appeared at the polls wielding signs that read, "This area is being patrolled by the National Ballot Security Task Force," hiring off-duty police officers and deputy sheriffs to interfere with voting operations.

The DNC sued the RNC at the time, arguing that the tactics of voter suppression violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act. While the case did not go to trial, the RNC agreed to "refrain from undertaking any ballot security activities … directed toward [election] districts that have a substantial proportion of racial or ethnic minority populations."

While the decree doesn’t stop "poll watching," interference beyond that targeting minorities could be considered a violation.

Trump has called for his supporters to act as "poll watchers" on Election Day by flocking to nearby voting locations to make sure that no cases of fraud have taken place.

"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."

Some have hinted that they may use racial profiling to seek out potentially Democratic voters, engaging in activities that seek to alienate some voters.   

Trump’s divisive campaign has fractured the Republican party, and some GOP officials have tried to distance themselves from the volatile candidate. Still, the DNC argues, the RNC could be working with Trump’s campaign to carry out techniques to suppress the vote.

"There is now ample evidence that Trump has enjoyed the direct and tacit support of the RNC in its 'ballot security' endeavors, including the RNC’s collaboration on efforts to prevent this supposed 'rigging' and 'voter fraud,'" the suit says, adding that Trump's vice presidential running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, "admitted" as much during an Aug. 3 rally in Denver.

Republican National Committeeman John Ryder sent out an email last week that discouraged any RNC members from partaking in efforts to assure "ballot security." The RNC denied the DNC’s allegations upon the suit’s filing, saying they focus on get-out-the-vote campaigns and not preventing perceived voter fraud.

"The filing is completely meritless," the RNC said in a statement to Politico. "Just as in all prior elections in which the consent decree was in effect, the RNC strictly abides by the consent decree and does not take part directly or indirectly in any efforts to prevent or remedy vote fraud. Nor do we coordinate with the Trump campaign or any other campaign or party organization in any efforts they may make in this area. The RNC remains focused on getting out the vote."

But others say the two could be violating the decree through their close relationship, as it prevents the RNC’s agents, employees, and those acting in concert with them from engaging in voter intimidation. Whether or not the alleged violations will lead to an extension of the consent decree is unclear, but a court ruling in favor of the DNC would bind the RNC to the measure until 2025.

"Generally speaking, the RNC and Trump seem to be agents of each other in terms of this election," Hasen says. "I don’t think that the Democrats have a slam dunk, but they do have a strong argument that Trump is violating the decree and is acting in concert with the RNC."

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