Donald Trump’s call for volunteer election monitors is raising fears about voter intimidation at the polls this fall.
“We’re going to watch Pennsylvania,” Trump told a crowd in Altoona, Pennsylvania Friday night. “Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times. If you do that, we’re not going to lose. The only way we can lose, in my opinion — I really mean this, Pennsylvania — is if cheating goes on.”
“We have to call up law enforcement and we have to have the sheriffs and the police chiefs and everybody watching,” Trump added.
At the time Trump made these statements he was down 9.2% to Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, according to Real Clear Politics.
Trump’s campaign followed up by asking visitors to its website to sign up to be a “Trump Election Observer.” Those who do so receive an email declaring: “We are going to do everything we are legally allowed to do to stop crooked Hillary from rigging this election. Someone from the campaign will be contacting you soon.”
Trump’s claim that people might vote five times—at other campaign stops he’s said it could be ten or even fifteen times—is belied by the facts.
One study by Justin Levitt, a respected expert and Loyola Law School professor, found just 31 incidents of voter impersonation fraud out of over 1 billion votes cast across 14 years. That is a voter fraud rate of 0.0000031%, and not worth the time, effort, and tax dollars. Others have found similar results.
Pennsylvania passed a voter ID law in 2012. It was later struck down, in part because the state was unable to point to a single case of in-person voter fraud to justify it. Other states have issued Republican-led voter ID laws, which have been losing in the courts because they specifically targeted minority groups, which are more likely to vote Democrat.
The Trump campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment. But campaign spokesman Jason Miller said in a statement to NPR: “To be clear, liberals love to throw out the voter intimidation card. What we’re advocating are open, fair and honest elections.”
That’s not calming the fears of voting rights advocates.
“There is no room in the election process for untrained ‘election watchers’ who may bring their own biases to the process, and scrutinize — and thereby intimidate — voters who don’t look like them,” said Kristen Clarke, the executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Clarke’s group conducts its own election monitoring, but with the goal of ensuring that eligible voters are able to cast a ballot.
Some Trump supporters also are noting that Barack Obama had his own “Voter Protection Program” in 2008. But that effort, too, was aimed at lawyers to protect the rights of legitimate voters. It explicitly told volunteers not to challenge voters’ eligibility.
Trump’s new program, by contrast, appears more like the election monitoring conducted by True the Vote, a Tea-Party-linked group that aimed to root out voter fraud and have drawn charges of voter intimidation. In 2010, Harris County, Texas, officials said they’d received several complaints of True the Vote volunteers being disruptive, NBC reported. And two years later, some Ohio voters complained of receiving official letters telling them their right to vote was being challenged, after they were targeted by the group. One True the Vote leader told volunteers in 2012 that the group’s goal was to give voters a feeling “like driving and seeing the police following you.”
Adding to concerns is that Trump’s call for volunteer observers comes not long after the U.S. Justice Department announced it will reduce the number of federal election observers it deploys to the polls this fall, who are charged with preventing voter suppression and intimidation. The Justice Department has said the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling weakening the Voting Rights Act, Shelby County v. Holder, required the move, though some voting rights advocates disagree.
Donald McGahn, a top election lawyer for the Trump campaign, has met with a Republican lawyers group that’s planning its own poll-monitoring program, The Washington Post reported.
“What they want to do is create a pretty select, Navy SEAL-type operation that takes the data we’re able to provide and deploy resources of the highest caliber,” Randy Evans, the chairman of the lawyers group, told the paper. “If you have 7,000 lawyers on the ground, and 200 sophisticated election attorneys on call, you can move quickly.”
(h/t NBC News)
The key difference between Trump’s proposal and the Obama’s 2008 “Voter Protection Program” initiative was that only meant for lawyers to be strictly observers of voter intimidation. This was a response to reports that Republicans engage in suppression of voting in the previous general election back in 2004.
There was an incident in 2008 where members of the New Black Panther Party engaged in voter intimidation incident in Philadelphia. While that was an issue, it was just a single case that involved 2 people, working independently, and outside of any officially sanctioned program.
Contrast this with Trump’s plan, which would be an actual sanctioned plan, appears to “make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.” which is the same language used by groups like True the Vote which actively engage in voter intimidation using “caging” and other techniques. Thus the concern.