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Who Will Watch Trump's Vigilante Poll-Watchers?

Trump’s vague and reckless calls for supporters to “monitor” elections is voter intimidation, and it may be illegal under the Voting Rights Act.

A neutral observer, top, watches as two election staffers help count absentee and mail-in ballots. (Eugene Tanner/AP)

Donald Trump has been working diligently to stir up an army of amateur, vigilante poll watchers under the pretense that the presidential election is rigged. Early voting has only begun in just a few states, but Trump is convinced that the fix is in, specifically in certain “inner city“ domains, and that rigorous “poll monitoring” is in order.

Election observing is a legal activity that normally consists of volunteers showing up to polling places on Election Day to ensure that the voting process goes smoothly. But election observing also can be—and has been—weaponized to make sure that the process does not go smoothly, particularly for nonwhite voters. It seems that Trump is aiming for the latter, and the Boston Globe reported on October 15 about the kind of fruit Trump’s suggestions are bearing in this area:

“Trump said to watch your precincts. I’m going to go, for sure,” said Steve Webb, a 61-year-old carpenter from Fairfield, Ohio. “I’ll look for . . . well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American… I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”

What Webb is describing is premeditated voter intimidation, which is illegal under the Voting Rights Act. It’s also akin to voter suppression, because people can be intimidated out of showing up to vote at all. Recall the sight of Trump looming over Hillary Clinton at the October 9 presidential debate—the optics of which were so creepy that Saturday Night Live seized on it. Now imagine thousands of people engaging in that same kind of creepy hovering at urban polling locations, creating a fog of fear over Muslim, Latino, and black voters. It’s a recipe for bedlam in a democratic process that is supposed to be free and fair.

But Trump is far from the first person to call for this kind of race-based monitoring, nor is this the first presidential election where Republicans have resorted to voter intimidation via racialized poll-watching. There is, in fact, a long and sordid history in the U.S. of this kind of racially motivated poll-watching. It reaches back before Jim Crow, stretching to Reconstruction, when African Americans were first given the right to vote. The Brennan Center for Justice recalls some of this history in its report “Dangers of ‘Ballot Security’ Operations: Preventing Intimidation, Discrimination and Disruption”:

Virginia passed its first challenger law in 1870, in the immediate wake of Reconstruction and as part of a package of suppressive measures, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, aimed at recently freed former slaves. Newspaper accounts from this period show that white citizens routinely took advantage of these new suffrage restrictions to challenge black voters at the polls. For example, one reported in 1896 that “Democrats had sent out challengers, and every colored man’s vote was contested” in one Richmond ward.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written for The Atlantic, such maneuvers stem from a “deep-seated fear of bestowing full American citizenship on non-whites, and particularly on blacks.”

To his point, in 1981, New Jersey Republicans were flagged for dispatching off-duty sheriffs and police officers to monitor predominantly black polling sites, apparently to stir fear during a very close gubernatorial election. This led to the Republican National Committee getting pulled into a federal consent decree to prevent them from carrying out any future operations that reeked of voter intimidation. The RNC is still subject to that consent decree, and in fact, election law expert Rick Hasen has posited that Trump’s racially targeted poll monitoring plans might violate it.

In 2012, Tea Party “patriots” teamed up to form a nationwide poll-watcher network called True the Vote, with the goal of making voters feel like they were “driving and seeing the police following” them. That kind of “policing” language is problematic enough in an elections context, given the U.S. history of law-enforcement officials blocking African Americans from polls. But it’s also a veiled threat to black and Latino people in general; police following and stopping drivers of color has lately often meant unfair imprisonment—if not injury and death.

True the Vote and their affiliates are notorious for drawing harassment complaints for their unwelcome and unlicensed “policing” of black and Latino polling sites in Houston, Texas, and beyond. I personally watched and reported Republican Party-affiliated and True the Vote-affiliated poll watchers prove themselves a nuisance for black voters in Florida in 2012. There, the poll watchers challenged and reported NAACP activists who offered water and chairs to voters standing in long poll lines under the hot Florida sun. In Denver, a poll watcher called in a fraud alert simply for seeing a “high concentration of people of color” at a polling site.

It’s not just people of color who’ve been targeted. In 2012, a True the Vote training manual was flagged for containing materials that would lead observers to single out suspected transgender individuals for voter fraud.  

Trump’s 2016 poll watchers could be even worse. At least True the Vote offered some semblance of poll-watcher training. The people who heed Trump’s challenges to watch “certain areas” seem propelled by unmitigated anger and racial animus, especially if the Boston Globe report is any true representative sample. The rancorous Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, one of Trump’s fondest acolytes—and no friend of black folks—is literally calling for “pitchforks and torches.

In 2012, “ballot bully” groups like True the Vote were largely contained by a formidable counterforce of “election protection” lawyers and an intense media spotlight on their activities. But there are several new dynamics at play in 2016 that could make such counterstrikes more challenging:

“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,” the Brennan Center for Justice’s counsel Adam Gitlin told ProPublica.

It also cannot be ignored that these risks extend well beyond polling sites. The heavy surveilling of nonwhite people—people suspected of either not being citizens or not deserving full citizenship—is and always has been a bipartisan initiative. Many people of color may feel little difference between being watched at the polls and being watched while shopping, or protesting, or driving, or even walking. Such racial monitoring is not merely a conservative or Republican enterprise. There’s a thin line between Jane Jacobs’s theory of “eyes on the street” and Trump’s “eyes on the polls”—in either case, it’s people of color who are the most often and consequentially eyed.

If people of all races and parties truly find this kind of “watching” and “observing” offensive and dangerous, we can’t only be concerned about it on Election Day. This kind of people-of-color-watching is an American pastime, and it’s time to kill it at its roots.

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