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Trump calls for law enforcement at the polls, prompting cries of voter intimidation

Federal law prohibits sending in armed officials, but the suggestion may be part of a wider voter intimidation strategy.

Police officer Ian Berkeley emerges from a voting booth in a polling station setup at the Town Hall on February 11, 2020, in Chichester, New Hampshire.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

President Donald Trump said Thursday he wants to dispatch law enforcement officials to polling places in November to guard against voter fraud, even though it’s unclear whether he can legally do so.

Voting rights advocates have raised concerns that even if Trump’s idea doesn’t come to fruition, it could discourage some voters from heading to the polls. It’s the latest in a series of statements indicating Trump’s interest in influencing how people vote in the November presidential election.

“We’re going to have everything,” the president told Fox News host Sean Hannity. “We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement, and we’re going to have, hopefully, US attorneys, and we’re going to have everybody and attorney generals.”

Federal law prohibits officials from sending “armed men” to “any place where a general or special election is held,” and only local officials have influence over police and sheriff’s deputies. But his messaging may inspire local action, and even the prospect of having figures of authority like police guarding polling places could have the effect of intimidating voters and discouraging them from turning out to vote.

“This is just such an old, dirty voter suppression tactic,” Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law told the Washington Post. “There is no doubt that this is about instilling fear and depressing participation in communities of color.”

In recent years, citizen groups organized to watch for voter fraud have recruited people to serve as poll watchers during elections. The Republican National Committee has also stepped up a campaign to recruit around 50,000 poll watchers to deploy during the November general election.

That’s made possible by the lapse in 2018 of a decades-old consent decree intended to protect against exactly what Trump suggested on Fox News. In the early 1980s, Democrats accused the RNC of voter intimidation due to a program of off-duty law enforcement officers who patrolled polls in predominantly Black and Latino areas.

The Democratic National Committee sued, and the RNC entered into a federal consent decree in which it agreed not to pursue such “ballot security” measures. In the decades since, the RNC has been careful to avoid activities that could be construed as voter suppression, leaving the orchestration of poll watcher programs to campaigns and local organizations.

That means this fall will mark the first presidential election in decades in which the group is able to spearhead poll-watching activities. The RNC has said its new poll watcher program will not include law enforcement officials but will rely on citizen volunteers, that volunteers will focus on both Democratic and GOP-leaning areas, and that it plans to be careful to be legally compliant so as not to be put under another consent decree.

Trump has long sowed doubt about safe voting methods

Trump’s comments are the latest in a series suggesting he’s interested in undermining Americans’ faith in the election results and discouraging certain kinds of voting.

The president has long railed against mail-in voting, which he’s argued is ripe for fraud and manipulation. There is little evidence to support that claim, but civil rights advocates have raised concerns that the repeated messages could impact voters’ faith in election systems.

His campaign has recently argued that he in fact only opposes universal mail-in voting — rather than absentee or opt-in mail-in voting — which only a small number of states plan to do in the fall.

But the public clearly hasn’t gotten the distinction: Republican voters seem to be listening to the president’s warning more than Democratic ones, prompting some local Republican parties to quietly promote mail-in voting despite the president’s rhetoric.

Trump has also repeatedly criticized the US Postal Service as costly and inefficient. Last week, he said on Fox News he opposed $25 billion of proposed additional funding for the Postal Service because he didn’t want it to be used for mail-in voting. He’s suggested withholding $3.6 billion in election funding for states to help prepare local election systems for the pandemic, including facilitating mail-in voting.

“They need that money in order to make the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said. “But if they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”

He’s also proposed delaying the 2020 election “until people can properly, securely and safely vote.”

All of these messages have already had an impact on how Americans think about the election. A poll from NBC and the Wall Street Journal indicated that 45 percent of Americans believe votes in the 2020 election will be accurately counted — down from the 59 percent that believed so in 2016. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans say they believe that mail-in ballots won’t be counted accurately.

As Trump continues to cast doubt on the methods for voting in the fall, voting experts fear it may delegitimize the results of the November election — another chaotic turn in an already tumultuous election year.

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