There are strict limits on what “poll watchers” can do
As Election Day nears, President Trump has increasingly threatened to instigate voter intimidation. First, he has insinuated that he will deploy law enforcement officers to root out election-related crimes at the polls or call up the National Guard. (Spoiler alert: voter fraud is vanishingly rare).
The president has abused his authority over law enforcement before, most notably when he deployed federal agents — and threatened to deploy the military — in response to domestic protests earlier this summer.
Now he’s calling for his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.”
Additionally, the Republican National Committee (RNC) claims to be gearing up for an aggressive “ballot security” operation involving 50,000 poll watchers, which many worry could include plans to intimidate voters. In 2017 a court freed the RNC from a 35-year-old consent decree that required the committee to obtain judicial approval of any such operations to ensure that they would not illegally intimidate, discriminate or interfere with voting.
There is a shameful history in parts of the country of armed officers, on duty or off, intimidating Black voters and other voters of color. Their mere presence in polling places could raise reasonable fears among groups that are frequently the target of racial profiling and misconduct.
But the law is crystal clear: it is illegal to deploy federal troops or armed federal law enforcement officers to any polling place. Federal, state and local laws limit the role of law enforcement and poll watchers, many of which also carry severe criminal penalties, prevent anyone — whether a law enforcement officer or a vigilante — from harassing or intimidating voters.
“The American people must be prepared for an election that is unprecedented in our history due to the enormous increase in mail-in ballots that have been, and will be, cast as a result of the pandemic,” said Vermont’s U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. “No one should have to risk their health or their lives in order to vote, and that is why many millions are voting through mail-in ballots. One of the worst lies that Donald Trump is spreading is that there is a massive amount of voter fraud in this country. That is a total lie which no election official, Republican or Democrat, can support. What we are doing with this effort is ensuring that the American people understand that if American democracy means anything, it means that every vote must be counted—no matter how long it takes.”
“President Trump has for months now been laying the foundation to undermine the election and he has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses… The most powerful defense against this type of autocratic behavior in our country is the will of the American people and that is why we are encouraging every American to vote and vote early,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.
“The election is well underway, and Americans are voting in droves because they know what is at stake. We must do everything we can to protect the right to vote, and uphold the integrity of the election process. That means pushing back on President Trump’s lies about mail-in ballots and his efforts to sow chaos,” said Senate Rules Committee Ranking Member Amy Klobuchar.
“Every American must vote… so we can make it clear to Trump and the world that America remains a democracy, the will of the people will always win out, and that any form of voter intimidation is illegal and will not be tolerated,” said Senator Chris Murphy.
This commentary is courtesy of The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law and an Oct. 18 report summarizing what to expect on Election Day.