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Freaking out about white supremacists’ voter harassment threats does their work for them

Voter intimidation is a serious problem. But some Election Day “plans” are probably just empty bluster.

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Will nonwhite Americans be in danger when they head to the polls on Election Day?

Somehow, in the year 2016, this has become a question worth considering. In the days before the election, white supremacist groups and forums have started hatching and hyping plans to “monitor” polling places on Election Day for possible fraud — in ways that often tip over into voter intimidation, harassment, or even potential incitement to violence.

A leader of the Daily Stormer website boasts there’s going to be an “army of alt-right nationalists” at the polls. Former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard turned Louisiana Senate candidate David Duke says he’s mobilizing supporters to watch “some of the more inner-city areas.”

But there’s a difference between threats and plans. The question of how real these threats are is an open one — and it’s important.

If nonwhite voters face a real risk of intimidation, harassment, or outright violence, it’s important that they be warned in advance — and it’s important that the federal government, civil rights organizations, and the public know what to look for so they can intervene to stop trouble before it starts.

But if the threats are just empty bluster, it can hurt to take them too seriously. If people are intimidated out of voting because of rumors of harassment that don’t materialize, then the would-be harassers are getting what they want anyway: They’re successfully suppressing the vote.

What’s actually happening: a lot of talk, but not a lot of action

There are a lot of different efforts being rolled into the category of “voter suppression,” coming from a constellation of right-wing people and groups (including the Trump campaign itself).

But while it’s easy to lump all of these plans together, some of them appear to be a lot more concrete and serious than others.

Trump’s campaign and a couple of other independent groups appear to have actual monitoring plans, some of which could cross the line into suppression. Many white supremacists, meanwhile, are threatening to engage in overt voter intimidation — but they’re probably exaggerating or just making things up.

Donald Trump has solicited signups for “election monitors.” Since Trump started warning about the threat of voter fraud and a “rigged” election, he’s asked his supporters to sign up to “monitor” polling places on Election Day.

While it’s not entirely clear what these volunteers are being asked to do (or if the campaign has even reached out to them at all), it’s possible that they’re getting trained by the Trump campaign and state Republican parties as partisan “poll watchers” — designated representatives of each party who are allowed by law to observe election officials as they count ballots.

Trump’s campaign is running anti-Clinton attack ads aimed at dissuading black voters from turning out to support her. A senior Trump campaign official bragged to Sasha Issenberg and Joshua Green of Bloomberg that the campaign has “three major voter suppression operations under way.”

But what he meant was that Trump was running ads, targeted to African Americans, white liberals, and young women, about how bad Hillary Clinton was — in the hopes that the ads would persuade those voters that they didn’t care enough about Clinton to turn out for her on Election Day.

Using “voter suppression” to describe a bunch of attack ads certainly got the Trump campaign a lot of attention, and outraged all the people the Trump campaign delights in outraging. But it’s a lot easier to put out ads and call them “voter suppression” than actually organize people to go intimidate voters.

The Oath Keepers are encouraging their members to surreptitiously monitor polling locations for voter fraud — from either side. The most organized unofficial effort to monitor the polls for voter fraud appears to come from the Oath Keepers, an anti-government group. It’s asking members to go incognito to polling places and watch for suspicious activity “with video, still camera, and notebook in hand.”

But at least in theory, it’s not deliberately targeting any campaign or any group of voters. “We are, indeed, most concerned about expected attempts at voter fraud by leftists,” the group wrote in a call to action for its members, “but we will spot, document, and report any apparent attempt at vote fraud or voter intimidation by anyone, of whatever party, as is our duty.”

An Oath Keeper stands watch in Ferguson in November.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

And while voter intimidation tends to involve making one’s presence known, the Oath Keepers are telling members to work hard to blend in, to go to the polls unarmed, and to “be sure your local police know that your intent is to NOT be a vigilante.” Whether members follow instructions is to be determined.

Roger Stone is conducting independent “exit polls” — but they’re supposed to catch fraud from election officials. Occasional Donald Trump adviser Roger Stone and his group Vote Protectors have also coordinated a volunteer “anti-fraud” effort — though it’s not entirely clear who they’re worried is going to commit the fraud. As Stone has described the project, volunteers will be conducting “exit polls” to be compared with official vote totals — just in case the “official” totals are being cooked.

If Stone is telling his people to watch out for election officials conducting fraud, that’s less likely to result in the intimidation of voters themselves. But when Christina Wilkie of the Huffington Post signed up for the Vote Protectors app, she found a lot of information on how to film suspicious voters and not a whole lot of information on how to poll them. That information has been taken down, but it’s still possible that Stone’s “exit polling” operation will provide a cover for voter intimidation.

Some Trump supporters have independently said they’ll try to monitor nonwhite voters. Trump has encouraged his supporters to engage in some freelance (not to say vigilante) election monitoring: taking groups of friends and going to polling places in “certain areas” (which tends to mean urban areas where nonwhite voters live).

It’s not clear how many of his supporters are taking the suggestion, but at least some appear to be planning something along those lines. Supporter Steve Webb told Mike Viser and Tracy Jan of the Boston Globe that he was going to “go up right behind” people he suspected of voting illegally (which he defined as “Mexicans, Syrians, people who can’t speak American”). He said he wouldn’t do anything “illegal” but would “make them a little nervous” — which is, in fact, illegal because it is voter intimidation.

The National Socialist Movement and the Daily Stormer are reportedly recruiting “informal” poll watchers — but they shouldn’t necessarily be believed. Jeff Schoep, the head of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, told Ben Schreckinger of Politico that his group’s chapters are recruiting people to serve as “informal” poll watchers, though he didn’t provide any details. Andrew Anglin of the Nazi site the Daily Stormer told Politico that he was sending an “army of alt-right nationalists” to polling places. (Other white supremacist groups are encouraging their members to volunteer as election monitors with the Trump campaign.)

This is probably bluster. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who monitors white supremacist groups in the US, calls Anglin and company “serial exaggerators” (in the words of Politico’s Schreckinger).

A right-wing message board is fantasizing about outlandish strategies like mounting hidden cameras at polling places and passing out “liquor and weed” in black neighborhoods to distract people from voting. According to Politico, a right-wing message board called is spinning an ambitious and multifaceted voter suppression plan: everything from mounting stationary cameras at polling places to catch suspected fraud to going into “ghettos” to pass out liquor and marijuana (presumably based on the racist stereotype that African Americans are so immoral that they’d forget their civic duty for a chance to get intoxicated).

These plans are probably bluster, too. For one thing, they’re based in ridiculous stereotypes — the plan to put stationary cameras at polling places rests on the assumption that majority-black schools are so chaotic that any white person with a clipboard can do anything he wants without getting noticed. For another thing, they claim the “liquor and weed” strategy was already practiced during the Michigan primaries, and there’s no evidence of that whatsoever.

Threats can just be empty bluster — and taking them too seriously does terrorists’ work for them

In theory, we won’t know exactly which of these plans are real, and how serious they are, until Election Day itself on November 8.

But around the country, for all intents and purposes, the election is already here: Millions of people have already voted early.

If groups like the Oath Keepers and the National Socialist Movement had the capacity to engage in widespread voter intimidation, they’d have every reason to be doing it already. It doesn’t make sense to wait to intimidate voters until Election Day. But there’s no evidence of anything like that happening.

So far, the site Electionland — a project set up by ProPublica in partnership with several other news organizations, monitoring voting access and turnout — has only identified one verified example of intimidation at an early polling place. That was in Florida, where a group of Trump supporters with signs and bullhorns shouted at voters and got within 100 feet of the polling place itself.

Legally, crossing that line turns legitimate campaigning into voter intimidation. But it’s a big difference from the sort of intimidation that the white supremacist groups seem to be promising.

So far, it looks like the would-be intimidators have a lot of bark and not a lot of bite. The problem with intimidation, though, is that you don’t have to follow through on your threats to get them to succeed — they succeed as long as people believe you.

This puts the media, and the public, in a tough situation.

It’s possible that reports of attempted voter suppression and intimidation will backfire and motivate people to come to the polls in a show of defiance (though, obviously, that doesn’t morally justify spreading false rumors any more than Donald Trump is morally justified in telling lies to get his supporters to vote).

But if even one person is scared out of voting because she’s worried that she’ll be harassed or confronted, the white supremacists have gotten what they wanted. The terrorists have won.

Alternatively, if people come to the polls energized but angry — determined to start a fight — they’re more likely to find what they’re looking for regardless. The most violent incident involving white supremacists in 2016 was a fight in Sacramento between a small group of white supremacist protesters and a larger group of counterprotesters, at which nine people were stabbed.

It’s not at all clear who threw the first punch, or who escalated it to the point of stabbing. But it’s clear that both sides were spoiling for a fight when they arrived, and they got it.

More attention needs to be paid to the anxiety this election has caused nonwhite Americans

It’s important not to unnecessarily fan people’s fear. It’s also important, however, to understand the reality in which that fear has taken root.

It’s bad for democracy to have people afraid to come to the polls, or to have them coming to the polls spoiling for a fight. It’s bad for democracy to have people trying to provoke these reactions in others. And it’s a particularly bad sign that in 2016 these threats don’t seem as outlandish as they could, because violence has erupted between Trump supporters and protesters, and because white supremacy has spurred people to hate crimes and terrorist plots.

Voter intimidation and racial violence have a history in the US, and that history tends to flow in one direction: conducted by white Americans to oppress nonwhite ones. The fear that going to the polls will be a dangerous act might be easily inflamed by empty bluster, but it is also something that has been much truer, throughout history, for black Americans than fears of voter fraud have been for white ones.

For all the talk, during this election, of the subjective way that conservative working-class whites see the world — their anxieties of various forms, their anger and fear — less attention has been paid to the anxieties of nonwhite Americans. But those anxieties are often much more fundamental: anxiety about physical safety and violence.

As Donald Trump has fanned the fears of his supporters, nonwhite Americans have gained new reasons to fear that they’ll be the targets — win or lose — of white rage. That anxiety deserves attention and sympathy. When the truth can make people less afraid, that truth should be spread — but the truths that justify that fear must be acknowledged too.

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