The group of Trump campaign officials came carrying cellphone cameras and a determination to help the president’s reelection efforts in Philadelphia. But they were asked to leave the city’s newly opened satellite election offices Tuesday after being told local election laws did not permit them to monitor voters coming to request and complete absentee ballots.
On social media, right-wing news sites and in the presidential debate Tuesday night, President Donald Trump and his campaign quickly suggested nefarious intent in the actions of local election officials, with the president claiming during the debate that “bad things happen in Philadelphia” and urging his supporters everywhere to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.”
The dark and baseless descriptions of the voting process in Philadelphia were the latest broad-brush attempt by the Trump campaign to undermine confidence in this year’s election, a message delivered with an ominous edge at the debate when he advised an extremist group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by” in his remarks about the election.
The sinister insinuations and calls for his followers to monitor voting activity are clear. What’s less apparent is how the Trump campaign wants this to play out.
Trump and his campaign often seem to be working on two tracks, one seemingly an amped-up version of mostly familiar election procedures like poll watching, the other something of a Pandora’s box with few guard rails.
In the first, Justin Clark, a lawyer for the Trump campaign, told a conservative group this year of plans to “leverage about 50,000 volunteers all the way through, from early vote through Election Day, to be able to watch the polls.” The head of the party in Philadelphia said Wednesday that there would be multiple poll watchers at every site in the city, which would mean at least 1,600 Republican watchers in Philadelphia alone.
Thea McDonald, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, said the operation was needed because “Democrats have proven their lack of trustworthiness time and again this election cycle.” She added, “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.”
In recent weeks, the Trump campaign has distributed carefully lawyered training videos to prospective poll watchers around the country describing what they can and can’t do while monitoring the voting process, imploring them to be courteous to “even our Democrat friends.” The poll watchers will challenge ballots and the eligibility of voters, but they are not supposed to interact with voters themselves.
Voting rights groups fear that effort could veer toward voter intimidation. But the question is how far Trump’s supporters will take the exhortations to protect a vote the president has relentlessly, and baselessly, described as being at risk of widespread fraud.
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 3 1/2 decades, after the party undertook an operation to intimidate New Jersey voters in 1981.
Now, poll watchers are being instructed in specific detail. In Michigan, for instance, they are being told to record when any paper jams occur, while those in Arizona are being given a detailed breakdown of the state’s voter identification requirements.
But while the official poll watchers are being schooled in legal procedures, Trump and some of his closest surrogates, including his longtime confidant Roger Stone and his son Donald Trump Jr., have recently floated conspiracy theories that also sound like calls to arms.
During a recent appearance on “The Alex Jones Show,” a far-right radio program that peddles conspiracy theories, Stone said that ballots in Nevada should be seized by federal marshals, claiming that “they are already corrupted” and that Trump should consider nationalizing the state police. Stone, a felon whose sentence was commuted this year by the president, has ties to the Proud Boys.
In a video imploring Trump supporters to join a poll-watching brigade called “Army for Trump,” Donald Trump Jr. made similarly evidence-free claims of fraud.
“The radical left are laying the groundwork to steal this election from my father, President Donald Trump,” the younger Trump says on the video, posted on Twitter.
Even as the president failed to condemn violent white supremacists during the debate, his own Homeland Security analysts asserted in a threat assessment that such extremists represent the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland through 2021,” according to a September draft of the assessment obtained by The New York Times.
The assessment said that “open-air, publicly accessible parts of physical election infrastructure,” including polling places and voter registration events, could be “flash points for potential violence.”
Many have been aghast at the president’s tactics. Nevada’s attorney general, Aaron Ford, a Democrat, tweeted Tuesday that telling supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” amounted to intimidation. “FYI — voter intimidation is illegal in Nevada,” he wrote. “Believe me when I say it: You do it, and you will be prosecuted.”
Lauren Groh-Wargo, the chief executive of Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group, said Trump and Republicans “continue to engage in these voter suppression efforts because they know if we have a free and fair election they will lose.”
And Benjamin L. Ginsberg, a retired elections lawyer for Republicans, said Trump’s debate comments went “several degrees farther than his campaign and the RNC have gone in describing their Election Day operations plans,” adding that the remarks placed “his campaign’s and the RNC’s lawyers in the position of having to answer how they plan to instruct their massive 50,000-person army of poll watchers to act on Election Day.”
While Trump and his allies give license to election discord, official party poll watchers are required to view training videos that provide a legalistic look at their role, which state election laws tightly limit.
Both parties solicit volunteer poll watchers, a process Republicans previously led at the state level amid the consent decree. In a new video tailored for Pennsylvania, prospective poll watchers are told they must wear identification and remain outside an enclosed space designated for voting. Questions must be directed to a party hotline or elections personnel, not voters.
But such legal niceties are already falling away as early voting begins. Trump and members of his family tweeted allegations against Philadelphia, and right-wing news outlets amplified the message of poll watchers being “barred” from early voting.
“As you know today, there was a big problem,” Trump said during Tuesday’s debate. “In Philadelphia, they went in to watch, they were called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out, they weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.”
But city officials said they were enforcing the law and would continue to do so.
“We have law enforcement officers, we have protocols in place to make sure all the voters are safe,” said Omar Sabir, a Democratic city commissioner in Philadelphia. “Don’t let anything or anyone intimidate you from exercising your right to vote.”
Additionally, Sabir noted, the seven locations in Philadelphia were satellite election offices where voters could request, fill out and submit absentee ballots; they were not official polling locations and therefore not open to poll watchers.
Those viewed as violating the rules and decorum that poll watchers must follow will be removed, said Nick Custodio, a deputy commissioner in Philadelphia.
“Watchers on Election Day are there to observe, and a lot of them will check tally sheets or which voters have shown up to vote so far, but they can’t be intimidating people,” Custodio said.
Martina White, chair of the Philadelphia County Republicans, said names were still being gathered to submit for certification amid a huge poll-watching effort. She disagreed with barring poll watchers from satellite election offices, saying there should be “oversight of what transpires in there, just like a poll watcher would on Election Day, as people are casting votes.”
The activity in Philadelphia came 10 days after Trump supporters chanting “four more years” disrupted early voting in Fairfax, Virginia, at one point forming a line that voters had to walk around outside the site.
The Republican establishment has ample reason to want to avoid accusations of voter intimidation. In the early 1980s, after the party sent hired workers sporting armbands reading “National Ballot Security Task Force” into Black and Latino precincts in New Jersey to challenge voters’ eligibility, it operated under an increasingly strict federal consent decree that eventually barred it from conducting or advising on any sort of “ballot security” activities — even by unpaid volunteers.
Richard Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California, Irvine, said that because of the president’s influence, the Republican National Committee was at risk of being associated with the same kind of behavior that led to the consent decree. He noted that the 2017 federal court ruling lifting the consent decree stated in a footnote that Trump had clearly encouraged voter suppression during the 2016 presidential campaign, but that his behavior could not be tied to the national party.
Now, however, he effectively controls the party.
“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,” 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.”
He added, “That’s profoundly destabilizing and scary.”