When white nationalists show up to 'monitor' the polls

Many Americans of different political stripes share concerns about the integrity of the presidential election. Citizen 'observers' can be a good thing if they are respectful. Intimidation is the concern.  

Jim Young/Reuters
A row of voting booths is seen at a polling station during early voting in Chicago on Oct. 14.

As the commander of the largest white nationalist organization in the United States, Jeff Schoep has worn brown shirts and militant all-black uniforms. On Election Day, however, Mr. Schoep, of Litchfield, Minn., will don his civvies to blend in – for the most part.

Amid concerns of election fraud, Schoep and his fellow members of the National Socialist Movement are planning to stand by polling places around the country, particularly those in predominantly black areas.

Schoep says he has ordered his colleagues to be respectful and discreet as they look for evidence of wrongdoing, but he acknowledges that he might not be beyond pushing the boundaries here and there: He’s considering wearing a small NSM insignia on his street clothes.

“Confucius says a wise man considers the possibility of anything, and I do,” says Schoep, whose organization numbers in the hundreds. “I’m not saying for sure that there’s some federal conspiracy and the system is going to rig this election, but it’s a concern and a possibility, and I think people need to be mindful of it. There’s a lot of mistrust of the federal government coming to a head this year.”

The National Socialist Movement, a recognized political party that critics call a neo-Nazi group, is one of myriad organizations and individual Americans on both the right and left vowing to keep an extra close watch on the elections this year. Concerns are percolating, with stories about dead people voting in Philadelphia, vote-switching machines in Texas, and a female Trump supporter in Iowa arrested for trying to vote twice.

Such stories partly miss the point, voting experts say. “The only way you’re going to succeed in stealing an election … is massive absentee ballot fraud or being an insider who perverts the system,” says Steve Huefner, co-author of “From Registration to Recounts: The Election Ecosystems of Five Midwestern States.”

But having multiple groups from all sides of the political spectrum watching an election isn’t necessarily bad, others say. In fact, should it be a close, contested election, more eyes on the polls could help ease distrust and create confidence that the results are the true reflection of the nation’s collective will.

The problem is when observation crosses the line into intimidation – if an insignia, or a gun, or a baseball bat makes someone less likely to stand in line to vote.

“Observation at the polls should not cross the line into intimidation, that’s key,” says Ned Foley, a constitutional law professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz School of Law and author of “Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States.” “But observation by both sides is a good thing.”

“We have an extremely transparent system, and that transparency is crucial to a well-functioning democracy and – just as important – the public perception that it is functioning properly,” he adds.

Looking out for 'you know what'

In many ways, United States elections already have observers built in. While systems in Britain and Australia, for example, are run by nonpartisan commissions, US elections are run by states and counties.

That seems like a recipe for local tampering, but rules ensure that both parties are looking over each other’s shoulder, especially at the local courthouse where votes are tallied and transmitted up the chain.

Many Americans, however, feel like they need to see for themselves, too. Some 41 percent of Americans believe the election could be stolen, according to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll. That's despite the fact that multiple studies have shown that voter fraud in the US is all-but-nonexistent.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has grasped that thread of doubt to build a “nationwide election protection operation” largely of followers urged to attend polls “in certain areas” to look for “you know what,” as Mr. Trump recently said.

Trump ally Roger Stone says he has recruited “Vote Protectors” to conduct exit polls in precincts around the country. North Carolina Democrats, in a lawsuit filed this week, called it a “phony” attempt to intimidate voters. In the lawsuit, plaintiffs cite the appearance of a person at a North Carolina polling place carrying a baseball bat emblazoned with the word “TRUMP” while wearing a badge with the words “poll observer.”

Conservatives often point to video showing a New Black Panther member with a nightstick outside a polling station in Philadelphia in 2008.

The alt-right website TheRightStuff.Biz announced it would be employing people dressed up as blue-collar workers to surreptitiously mount cameras in polling places. A representative of the site told Politico that activists will also go into “ghettos in Philly with beer and marijuana to give out to the local residents” so that they’re more likely to stay home and not vote.

The Oath Keepers, a group of retired law enforcement formed in 2009, says they will “form up incognito intelligence-gathering and crime spotting teams and go out into public on Election Day, dressed to blend in with the public.”

The group vowed to “operate within the law,” but surreptitiously.

“Dress to blend with the crowd,” Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes wrote to members. “That may mean wearing a Bob Marley, pot leaf, tie-die (sic) peace symbol, or ‘Che’ Guevara T-shirt … or it may mean wearing working-man Carhartt pants and a plaid shirt.”

The flip side

Democrats have their own concerns.

The mobilization of alt-right poll watchers in the inner city goes hand-in-hand with official voter roll purges, elimination of polling places in black neighborhoods, and anecdotes of eligible voters unable to vote, liberals say.

“There’s very little difference between a white supremacist trying to keep certain segments of society from feeling comfortable about exercising the franchise and someone who sits behind an election clerk desk doing the same thing through legal means,” says Karl Frisch, a former senior fellow at the progressive Media Matters for America and the current director of Allied Progress.

Even foreign governments are getting into the game. Three states report denying Russia the right to send observers into US polling stations, shrugging it off as a “PR stunt.”

The standard for the system, however, should not be 100 percent accuracy, but rather preventing mistakes or incidents from affecting the outcome, say experts.

“We can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” says Professor Huefner, also of the Ohio State University’s Moritz School of Law. “In fact, the kinds of things that election-day observers are being called upon to [watch for] are pretty rare, like voting by dead people or by unregistered voters.”

“I’m not saying there are no instances of in-person voter fraud, but we cannot find instances in which that type of misbehavior has changed the outcome of an election,” he adds.

The greater concern is the “gray area with some conduct,” says Professor Foley. For example, “state laws about guns and voter intimidation are a patchwork of wildly varying regulations,” The Washington Post reports.

Adds Foley: "Much of this will be subjective at the margins.” 

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