Trump's Call for Freelance Poll-Watchers Summons a Dark HistoryRoundup
tags: Republican Party, far right, Donald Trump, Vote Suppression, 2020 Election
Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She co-hosts the history podcast "Past Present" and "This Day in Esoteric Political History."
Chris Wallace ended the first presidential debate Tuesday with a softball question, asking the candidates if they would urge their supporters not to engage in "civil unrest" around the election. Joe Biden gave a swift and clear yes. President Donald Trump did not.
Instead, Trump urged his supporters to "to go into the polls and watch very carefully." He then unspooled an elaborate conspiracy about Democrats stealing the election, insisting that voters were casting fraudulent ballots and his supporters needed to intervene. And in fact, some already had, swarming a Virginia polling site and requiring election officials to send escorts for voters waiting to cast their ballots.
The pretext of "ballot security" is a rallying cry for other Republican leaders as well. On Thursday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a shocking (but not surprising) proclamation allowing for poll watchers to observe the in-person delivery of mail-in ballots and limiting the number of drop-off locations to one per county. This will add significant burdens on voters across the geographically spread-out state but especially in Harris County, its most populous county -- and a Democratic stronghold.
Trump's call from the debate stage for freelance poll-monitoring dramatically increases the odds of voter intimidation in the 2020 election. But so does the expiration of a 1982 consent decree put in place to prevent Republicans from engaging in voter intimidation schemes. The 2020 election will be the first presidential election in nearly 40 years without those protections -- and the case that led to the decree shows exactly why we need it now.
In 1981, New Jersey held an off-year election for state and local offices. On Election Day, Black and Latino residents watched as groups of men with armbands reading "National Ballot Security Task Force" appeared in their neighborhoods, tacking up signs that warned they were on the lookout for people casting fraudulent ballots. The same men, some of them armed, appeared at the polls, asking to see voters' registration cards and telling them they could not cast a ballot without them. Alarmed Democratic leaders rushed to court, where a judge ruled that the signs were illegal and had to be taken down. (The judge didn't rule on the men at the polls.)