The integrity of this year’s election is under attack — but not in the way Donald Trump claims it is. Ahead of last week’s final debate, the Republican nominee called the election “rigged” dozens of times — in at least 20 tweets sent in the course of a single weekend as well as at rallies across the country in which he called on supporters to show up in “certain areas” and watch the polls.
“And when I say ‘watch,’ you know what I’m talking about, right?” he told supporters in Ohio. “Go to your place and vote. And go pick some other place and go sit there with your friends and make sure it’s on the up and up,” he encouraged supporters in Michigan. “The only way we can lose, in my opinion — and I really mean this, Pennsylvania — is if cheating goes on.”
Trump’s comments, as well as those made by some of his supporters who more explicitly voiced the racism behind his call to watch the polls, sent chills down the spines of many Americans, conjuring up visions of civil rights-era violence and voter harassment that’s not unheard of even in more recent elections.
But the real problems with this year’s vote will be largely invisible on Election Day. Three years ago, the Supreme Court struck down a major section of the Voting Rights Act, opening the doors to new efforts to restrict voting. The impact of that decision will be felt at the polls for the first time this year. Measures passed in the aftermath of that decision — restrictive voter ID laws, new requirements for voter registration, cuts to early voting options and polling sites, and other schemes — are the real threat to the November 8 vote, civil rights advocates say. And these procedural obstacles to the polls pose more insidious, large-scale challenges to suffrage than the more egregious and illegal harassment of the sort Trump has repeatedly advocated.
“This is an unfortunate part of our history,” Leah Aden, a senior counsel with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, told The Intercept. “People are acutely aware of the changing demographics in this country and while we should all be working towards more people participating, there’s always been this segment of our country that has wanted to limit who is part of the political process.”
Voter intimidation, Aden noted, has traditionally gone hand in hand with the growing political participation of minorities. This election is slated to be the most racially diverse in U.S. history, a reality that’s already beginning to tip the scales in some swing states. One in three eligible voters is a member of a minority group, and minorities also make up 43 percent of new voters.
The growing diversity of the electorate, coupled with the uniquely racist and incendiary rhetoric of the Trump campaign, has fueled fears of widespread intimidation. Responding to Trump’s call to watch the polls, a supporter at a recent Ohio rally told the Boston Globe that he planned to look for “Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American.”
“I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally,” he said, describing a practice that’s unequivocally illegal under federal law. “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.”
The specter of voter intimidation and growing fears of violence at the polls have led some local officials to add “active shooter training” to Election Day preparation, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented growing threats of “civil war” from white supremacists should Hillary Clinton win.
The Trump campaign has called on volunteers to sign up as election observers. To lead the effort, the campaign reportedly recruited Mike Roman, a Republican who in 2008 helped promote a video showing two members of the New Black Panthers, one with a billy club, outside a Philadelphia polling site. That isolated incident fueled months of media frenzy over voter intimidation and prompted two DOJ investigations. Trump adviser Roger Stone told The Guardian that 1,300 volunteers from the grassroots Citizens for Trump group planned to conduct exit polls in nine swing-state cities with large minority populations — a plan resembling voter intimidation more than traditional exit polling. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on these reports.
But despite the incessant rhetoric of election fraud coming from Trump’s camp, some remain skeptical that significant Election Day intimidation will actually take place. A Republican election official in Philadelphia — one of the cities that Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and Newt Gingrich all singled out as being rife with fraud — told the New York Times that his office hadn’t received “a single call from somebody outside Philadelphia looking to be a poll watcher.”
Trump himself seems to be hazy on the details. In Pennsylvania, for instance, poll monitors have to be registered to vote in the county they are monitoring. “So when Trump goes to rural Pennsylvania and says I want you to go to certain parts of Philadelphia and watch the polls, he is telling them to do something illegal,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s voting rights project. “Everyone agrees that the parties are entitled to and should have people watch the polls. We want certified poll monitors. We don’t want these broad, blanket calls for random people to show up at the polls in places they’re not familiar with and look for anything that they think is suspicious.”
But even alarmism is a form of voter intimidation — and it cuts both ways. Researchers have suggested that Trump’s insistence that the election is rigged might be discouraging his own supporters more than his opponents. And civil rights advocates are taking the threats of intimidation seriously while warning against the inhibiting impact of hyped-up speculation about Election Day disturbances.
“It’s tough, because I don’t want voters to be afraid, I don’t want them to think that this is something that’s very common,” said Ho. “But at the same time, people need to know that this is something that happens from time to time, and when it does, they need to know their rights and they need to report what they see.”
In fact, while voter intimidation and harassment have become far more rare than subtler and more insidious assaults on voting rights, there are plenty of precedents, and one does not need to travel too far back in history to find them.
In 1964, Republican Party lawyers, including future Supreme Court justice William Rehnquist, demanded that black and Latino voters in Arizona read out sections of the U.S. Constitution to prove their citizenship. In 1966, a year after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, white teenagers in Georgia harassed black voters in line at the polls as police watched; white election officials inspected black voters’ ballots in Alabama; and Mississippi plantation workers were forced to cast their ballots in plantation stores as their bosses watched. The list goes on and on.
Fast forward to 2004, when University of Pittsburgh students were held up for hours at the polls as Republican Party lawyers challenged the credentials of “pretty much every young voter who showed up.” That same year, in Harris County, Texas, local police officers showed up at an early voting site and demanded to see IDs, saying anyone with an outstanding warrant would go to jail. In 2012, an organizer with the right-wing poll-watching group “True the Vote” told volunteer monitors that the voters they targeted should be made to feel “like driving and seeing the police following you.”
Civil rights advocates fear that Trump’s call for his supporters to watch the polls might lead to more incidents of that nature this year. Fliers circulating on social media have been reminding voters of their rights, calling on anyone experiencing intimidation or obstruction to take photos and report the incident to authorities. And in addition to the parties’ and campaigns’ official poll monitors — which must be pre-registered with local election officials — independent observers will also be watching the polls and fielding calls from voters about any irregularities.
One such initiative is the National Lawyers’ Committee’s “election protection” program, a nonpartisan effort that will dispatch trained monitors to 27 states. The group has also worked to remove barriers to the polls ahead of the vote: It recently filed suit in Virginia after the state’s online registration tool crashed, causing eligible voters to miss the deadline, and it successfully fought to extend the registration deadline in North Carolina areas affected by Hurricane Matthew.
Kristen Clarke, president of the committee, told The Intercept she fears the impact of both those procedural obstacles and the prospect of more blatant harassment. “We want a democracy where people feel they are free and able to participate,” she said. “My hope is that people will not be discouraged and stay at home, that’s just not a healthy outcome for our democracy.”
But even with the potential for intimidation at the polls, by far the greatest challenge to this year’s election will come from state and local governments themselves. The widespread, unfounded talk of election fraud pushed by Trump has been “a distraction from the real problems that voters face in communities around the country,” Clarke said. “There are voters in certain communities that are particularly vulnerable this election cycle in the wake of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act.”
This election marks the first presidential race since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act that required nine states and several jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to secure federal approval before changing election laws and procedures.
That decision was followed by a rash of measures across the country — some proposed within hours of the court’s ruling — restricting voting access for the minority voters the Voting Rights Act was originally intended to protect. Many of those measures have been challenged in court, some successfully, but uncertainty over the new election rules has left voters confused and voting rights advocates scrambling to litigate every new attempt at restrictions.
At least 14 states have new restrictions in place this year, including voter ID laws, changes in registration requirements, and cuts to early voting options. In Maricopa County, the largest county in Arizona, officials closed 70 percent of the polling sites, causing long delays during the primaries and prompting a DOJ investigation. In Florida and Ohio, officials tried to purge thousands of mostly black voters from their rolls. As The Intercept has reported, Missouri legislators even proposed changing the state’s constitution — which unlike the federal one includes an affirmative right to vote — in an effort to pass stricter voter ID laws. The proposed amendment will be on the ballot on November 8. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund maintains a regularly updated tally of voter suppression efforts that is more than 100 pages long.
Not incidentally, the states that in recent years have been most adamant about restricting access to the polls are those that were previously covered by the Voting Rights Act’s federal oversight, as well as those seeing the growing political participation of minorities. According to research compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice, of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, six have new restrictions in place, and of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, seven passed laws making it harder to vote.
In light of the Shelby County decision, the DOJ has significantly scaled back its election monitoring. In 2012, the agency’s observers monitored elections in 13 states. This year, they will be inside polls in only four states, only one of which, Louisiana, is in the South, where historically the federal government exercised broad oversight over voting rights.
The Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, one of the world’s largest human rights and security groups and a monitor of elections across the world, plans to dispatch nearly 500 observers to the U.S. The organization has been sending observers to monitor U.S. elections since 2004, but this year is different.
“I have often heard claims of fraud by electoral contestants,” wrote Christine Muttonen, the mission’s coordinator, in an op-ed for CNN. “But these tend to be in countries emerging from authoritarianism and in post-conflict scenarios; they are somewhat surprising to hear in the world’s oldest constitutional republic.”
Election fraud, the ostensible motivation between both Trump’s “rigged vote” rhetoric and voter restriction measures across the country, has repeatedly been debunked as a myth. What can’t be debunked is this country’s history of discrimination and repression of communities of color, and that shameful legacy remains the most enduring threat to the integrity of the November 8 vote.