Trump’s call for poll watchers sparks fear of voter intimidation

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US President Donald Trump leaves after holding a Make America Great Again rally as he campaigns at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, October 13, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — As late as Tuesday night, President Donald Trump was asking supporters to sign up to serve as a “Trump Election Poll Watcher” to help keep an eye on the voting process where they live.

It’s a message he’s been driving home as we inch closer to Election Day — and one some political insider fear could lead to intimidation at voting locations.

During the first debate against Democrat Joe Biden, Trump urged people “to go into the polls and watch very carefully.” The move follows a string of statements made over the last few months claiming the mail-in voting process is ripe for fraud and that Democrats are attempting to “steal” the election.

According to Politico, the Trump campaign has gathered more than 50,000 volunteers to monitor the election process.

“We need every able-bodied man, woman to join Army for Trump’s election security operation at,” Donald Trump Jr. recently said in a video posted online. “We need you to help us watch them. Not just on Election Day, but also during early voting and at the counting boards. President Trump is going to win. Don’t let them steal it.”

In addition to using family members and close allies as recruiting tools, Trump’s Twitter account has played a huge role in getting people to sign up. One political insider believes a recruiting tweet from the president can result in 1,000 additional signups.

The idea of candidate-centered poll watchers has some concerned about voter intimidation or even polling place violence.

A recent incident in Fairfax, Virginia, where Trump supporters chanted outside of a polling place, led the state’s attorney general to warn its residents about federal and state laws against voter intimidation.

“Voting is a fundamental right. It is the foundation of our democracy, and no Virginian should ever feel for their safety or feel intimidated when they exercise their right to vote,” he said.

Despite the warning, it’s not believed any laws were broken by the chanting supporters. The group was more than 40 feet from the polling place, which is the distance required by law.

Despite aggressive messaging from the president and his family about Democrats “stealing” the race, the Trump campaign has said its poll watchers are simply there to make sure the voting process is running smoothly. According to information provided to Politico, the volunteers are trained to focus on things like “making sure that lines aren’t too long, machines are working properly, and that voting locations are stocked with enough ballots.”

“President Trump’s volunteer poll watchers will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally, all valid ballots are counted, and all Democrat rule-breaking is called out,” Thea McDonald, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, told the New York Times.

According to training videos obtained by CNN, that statement appears to be largely true. CNN reviewed poll watcher training clips distributed across 17 states and found messaging like, “Be vigilant. Don’t assume the worst in people. And be courteous — even to Democrats.”

It’s worth noting volunteer poll watchers have been used by both parties over the years. However, this will be the first time in recent memory the RNC has participated in a poll watching initiative. The New York Times notes:

The Republican National Committee has been allowed to participate in poll watching only because the courts in 2018 lifted a consent decree that had barred them from doing so for three and a half decades, after the party undertook an operation to intimidate New Jersey voters in 1981.

Because of the decree, Republicans had largely organized volunteer poll watching at the state level.

Richard Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California, Irvine, told the New York Times the RNC could again be at risk for behavior that led to the decree.

“While I was worried about Trump norm-breaking in 2016, it is far worse for a sitting president to be undermining the integrity of the election,” Dr. Hasen said. “Whether Trump means the things he says or not, he’s convincing his most ardent supporters that the only way he loses is if the Democrats cheat.”

There’s also a belief among political insiders that the poll watchers could be used to help throw the results-counting process into a tailspin — potentially creating extended delays.

“Should Trump seek to delegitimize the presidential election … His most obvious tactic would be having the RNC instruct its poll watchers to abandon their traditional role and, instead, lodge mass challenges both as voters cast their ballots and then as mail ballots are tabulated,” wrote Republican election attorney Ben Ginsberg in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

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