Donald Trump has not only challenged the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election, he has challenged many citizens’ right to vote. In one stump speech after another, he’s called on his supporters, in the name of suppressing all-but-nonexistent voter fraud, to go into cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis to eyeball—and if all goes well, intimidate—African American voters at the polls. He’s put Mike Roman, a Republican political operative best known for dialing up fears about the tiny fringe group New Black Panthers during the 2008 election, in charge of his “election protection” effort.
But Trump’s threat to voting has galvanized state and local election officials and voting advocates across the political spectrum in a pushback against the most serious voter intimidation effort that the country has faced since the 1965 Voting Rights Act ended the routine denial of the franchise to Southern blacks. Republican secretaries of state from coast to coast have lambasted his remarks and pledged to maintain the integrity of the election process. At least one Republican secretary of state, Paul Pate of Iowa, took Trump’s comments as a personal insult. As Salon noted, it’s Republican secretaries of state who control the election process in most of the battleground states, so Trump did the party no favors—no surprise there.
At the grassroots, voting rights advocates have their work cut out for them. Minority communities have often endured Election Day shenanigans designed to dissuade people from voting—from flyers with erroneous polling locations to robocalls proclaiming a victory for a candidate even though the polls are still open. But such Trumpian exhortations as this one, that he delivered to his supporters in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in August—“I hope you people can sort of not just vote on the eighth—go around and look and watch other polling places and make sure that it's 100 percent fine”—make those earlier deceptive efforts seem quaint by comparison.
Federal and some state laws prohibit private citizens or government officials from interfering with a voter based on his or her race or ethnicity. Confrontations, insulting or threatening language, and conspiring to infringe a person’s voting rights are also prohibited under the Voting Rights Act. However, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) forced the U.S. Department of Justice to scale back its teams of election monitors and observers. To fill that void came groups like the Election Protection, a coalition of more than 100 national, state, and local groups including American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, and the League of Women Voters.
In some states, the groups protecting the right to vote have had recent experience upholding the franchise. In 2012, Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker faced a bitter recall election battle that produced the largest voter turnout in decades in a mid-term election year. True the Vote, a Houston-based far-right group, sent election observers who sought to deter minority voters in Milwaukee, college students in Appleton, and elsewhere.
In Wisconsin, anyone can serve as an election observer. But they must follow specific rules: They can only speak to the chief election official at a polling place, not to other poll workers; they cannot talk to voters, take photos, record videos, or wear campaign-related clothing or other paraphernalia. Instead, the True The Vote “observers” were “disruptive,” Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin told The American Prospect. They complained that poll workers needed to speak louder when talking to voters and insisted on seeing certain individuals’ registration documents. Local election officials “didn’t know how to deal with them,” says Kaminski. A post-election state training program helped local officials better understand how to handle those kinds of issues.
For Wisconsin, 2012 turned out to be a dry run for current presidential contest. This year, the League plans to deploy about 300 trained volunteers to between 600 and 700 of the state’s 2,800 polling places, focusing on larger cities and college campuses. “Nothing surprises us here anymore, it has been so contentious and polarized,” says Kaminski. “But I do have confidence that election officials will maintain order in this election.” Her biggest fear is not violence or cheating (“it would be hard to cheat in Wisconsin,” she argues), but depressed turnout—which is the real goal of groups like True The Vote. “The greatest danger is before [the] election and the effect it has on voters who may decide, ‘If it is going to be a war zone at the polls I don’t want to be there,’” she says.
In 37 states and the District of Columbia, one way around lines at the polls and other Election Day inconveniences is early voting. In Ohio, the League of Women Voters has set up a toll-free hotline that voters can call to find out when and where the early voting is taking place, get other election details, and report problems they may encounter. Ohio has a history of voter intimidation, according to Carrie Davis, executive director of the League’s Ohio chapter. In 2012, billboards went up in predominately African American Cleveland neighborhoods and other locales warning, “Voter Fraud Is A Felony!”
Yet Davis says that while the League gets calls from people fearful of intimidation or worried about fraud, most callers want help interpreting the state’s election regulations. A U.S. District Court judge ruled Wednesday that Ohio residents who had been wrongly purged from the rolls because they voted infrequently could vote by provisional ballot in November. Such complexities themselves can present a kind of voter intimidation. “Where we are seeing the biggest challenges right now are these confusion problems because the voting rules change more often than the weather,” says Davis.
In Pennsylvania where Trump called for his supporters to keep an eye on Philadelphia and Pittsburgh voters, Suzanne Almeida, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania also hears more about administrative issues that might cause long lines than about the possibility of Election Day violence. “Anytime we have someone who is a prominent national figure sowing doubt on the way our elections are run and whether the results can be valid, it can be damaging to our democracy in general,” she says “But on a one-on-one individual level, I don’t think that we are seeing a huge impact.”
Trump has been effective at rousing his base of predominately white supporters, but whether they are willing to go over barricades for him to disrupt elections remains to be seen. A recent New York Times report noted that his efforts to enlist his people in his own “election protection” teams “seem to be a ‘Potemkin’ effort.” Voting advocates are remarkably sanguine about the challenge posed by the megalomaniacal Republican. But they’re also armed with response plans, volunteers, attorneys, law enforcement officials— and a conviction that even a democracy under siege can prevail.