In this unpredictable campaign season, it’s hard to foresee what Election Day 2016 itself will look like. But many signs are worrying. The Republican nominee has essentially called for voter intimidation, and his supporters are taking up arms. Violence at the voting booth is a real possibility. Thousands of voters are likely to be misinformed about where and how to vote. In some areas they may find out their right to cast a ballot challenged. And if that wasn’t enough, multiple hacks throughout the campaign season indicate that foreign actors may add to the chaos.
Of course, these concerns are not new. Political players have always strived to keep those whom they did not want voting at home, and these efforts have always been thinly veiled. But the extent of voter intimidation tactics discussed by a number of fringe groups and the formal efforts to suppress the minority vote are reminiscent of an entirely different time in American history.
Trump’s favorite refrain during the last months of the campaign season has been that the election is “rigged” against him. In his particularly coded language he has called on his supporters to monitor polling locations in “certain areas” to prevent supposed voter fraud. Many have argued this is a voter intimidation tactic, designed to dissuade minorities from voting, and resembles ploys used by white supremacists in in the 19th century to prevent blacks from exercising their newfound political rights.
“You’ve got to go out. And you’ve got to get your friends. And you’ve got to get everyone you know,” Trump said at a rally in Pennsylvania in October. “And you got to watch your polling booths, because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania. Certain areas. I hear too many bad stories, and we can’t lose an election because of you know what I’m talking about.” He added: “go over and — watch. And watch carefully.”
Rudy Giuliani, a Trump surrogate, spelled out later what these “certain areas” are: inner cities, where voters tend to be Democrat.
Trump supporters have taken up their candidate’s call. A group called “Vote Protectors,” affiliated with Republican strategist Roger Stone planned to go to polling sites and film voters using a livestreaming app and to identify themselves with fake but official-looking badges. The website instructing “Protectors” how to proceed was taken down but it should come as no surprise if self-appointed watchdog groups are patrolling areas around polling stations on Election Day.
Another group, the militant right wing “Oath Keepers” is planning “Operation Sabot:” Current and former military members and law enforcement officers have been instructed to go out undercover (and unarmed) in “incognito intelligence gathering and crime spotting teams.” Both these groups aim to prevent “voter fraud” instances by “leftists” and other culprits.
Poll watchers come in many iterations. In 2004, GOP lawyers were reportedly questioning the credentials of an overwhelming number of those who showed up to vote at the University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania. This year, galvanized by Trump’s candidacy, Neo-Nazis and the KKK plan on participating in the monitoring, Politico reported.
What’s ironic about the poll-watching effort is that voter fraud is an extremely rare instance in the United States, according to the Brennan Center. In fact, what’s arguably more dangerous about voter fraud is how political candidates such as Donald Trump use it as a way of stoking fear and paranoia and inspiring groups that could actually influence the vote by intimidating people at the polls.
This is actually the reason for which the Republican National Committee (RNC) is officially banned by a consent decree from using voter fraud as a pretext to engage in ballot monitoring after it employed a “task force” to do so in the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial election, as Vox explains. Proving incidents of voter intimidation — including physical restraint — by the “task force,” the Democratic National Committee successfully sued the RNC. While the RNC is still under the 34-year-old consent decree, nothing prevents either Trump supporters or his campaign, which also put out a call for “Election Observers” for Nov. 8, to “monitor” polling locations.
The DNC is suing the GOP once again this year, for “directly and tacitly” supporting Trump in his calls for “ballot security” measures.
Authorities are less concerned about the very rare instance of voter fraud committed by individual citizens, but by the possibility that foreign actors—or other troublemakers—disrupt the vote. Intelligence officials say that it would be very hard for, say, Russia to alter the result of the election, but David Sanger at the New York Times reports that they are concerned about hackers trying to interfere. The most worrying scenario is meddling with voter registration rolls, held on databases that are often connected to websites. Others include manipulating the incoming voter counts that are given to media outlets, staged internet outages and tampering with voting machines.
Formal voter suppression
In some states, voters might show up at the polls and find out that they are not registered to vote. Every state gives voters an option of challenging another voter’s registration. This year, the NAACP alleges in a lawsuit, North Carolina has canceled thousands of voter registrations after being challenged by a group of individuals. The group argues—and the Department of Justice agrees—that the purge violated a law that prohibits mass cancellations within 90 days before the election, and it disproportionately targeted African Americans. This happens through a process called “voter caging” which involves sending mail to voters en masse and challenging their registration if the mail was returned as “undeliverable.”
Following the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down key parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Republican legislatures in a number of states have introduced restrictions that could prevent many minority voters from casting their ballots. The New York Times reported that in Sparta, Georgia the election board was ordering black citizens to appear before them in person to prove their residence under the threat of losing their voting rights. More than 180 black voters were purged from voting lists. Before the Supreme Court decision, this sort of effort would have had to be approved by the Justice Department. In some southern and Texas counties, minority voters may have a hard time getting to the polling stations, after many were closed or moved.
Confusion and violence
Due to a proliferation of new voting legislation and court battles in swing states across the country, voters in many locations are confused about what kind of ID they need to vote, or whether they need any identification at all, or whether they can register to vote on Election Day. Mere days before the vote, in many areas, misinformation reigns.
The tension surrounding the election may very well turn into violence. Jamelle Bouie at Slate argues that we could see racial tensions stoked during the election flare up next week, reviving a tragic American tradition of racial violence at the polls.
Confrontations between poll watchers and voters have been physical in the past, and considering all the violence that has already occurred during the campaign season, there’s little reason to believe they will be different this year, if not worse. With Trump’s repeated hints that he would question the result of the election, and with more than 40% of his voters declaring they will not recognize the legitimacy of a Clinton’s presidency, according to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll, should she win we may see a very tense post-election day.
The poll also says that half of likely US voters are concerned about violent incidents on Election Day or the day after. Worried election officials in South Carolina have ordered poll workers trained in case of violence at the voting locations. School boards across the country decided to either cancel classes or move polling stations out of schools, more cautious than ever before.
Many other things could go wrong on Election Day—and the fears about intimidation, chaos, violence and foreign interference may very well be overblown. But this exceptionally tense and ugly campaign points to an equally tense and ugly conclusion.