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How Scared Should I Be?

How Scared Should I Be of Voter Intimidation?

Donald Trump's talk of a "rigged" election and his calls for his supporters to "watch other communities" has everyone on edge. Are there going to be fights at the polls this Election Day?

by Mike Pearl
Oct 17 2016, 4:00pm

Boss Tweed. Cartoon by Thomas Nast, 1871

Time for "How Scared Should I Be?" the column that quantifies the scariness of everything under the sun and teaches you how to allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.

You can't not vote this year. The Washington Post editorial board has called Donald Trump a "unique threat to American democracy." Alex Jones has called Hillary Clinton an "abject, psychopathic demon from hell that as soon as she gets into power is going to try to destroy the planet." Basically, however you feel about the candidates, November 8, 2016, is going to be a consequential day in human history.

But here's an added wrinkle: Millions of voters are convinced—against all evidence—that fraud at the polls is going to be rampant this year, so Donald Trump has asked his supporters to become "Trump Election Observers" in order to help him "Stop Crooked Hillary from Rigging This Election!"

"So important that you watch other communities, because we don't want this election stolen from us," Trump said during a recent speech before a mostly white crowd in suburban Pittsburgh, implying that the fraud would be happening in Pennsylvania.

The racial implications of telling white crowds to watch out for "other communities" rigging the election are obvious. In an editorial, the Baltimore Sun linked Trump's comments to voter ID laws that critics have accused of making it harder for black people to vote. "Observing is one thing, harassment is another—and states are often ill-prepared to police the practice themselves," wrote the Sun.

And Trump himself did little to downplay the notion that he was inciting violence when he told a crowd on August 22, "and when [I] say 'watch' you know what I'm talking about, right?"

So if I head to the polls undecided on November 8, is there any chance I'll have my mind made up for me by a bunch of Trump-supporting brownshirts, standing in front of my polling booth with sawn-off pool cues, Pinkerton-style?

In my case? Not likely, according to my local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Lori Shellenberger, voting rights director for ACLU of California, told me there's not much of a voter-intimidation scene in my state. She called voter intimidation "something that's gone on for years," but even though we see the odd radical nutjob making noise about bullying voters in California, she said, "we have such well-trained and professional election officials, I don't think those groups have been very successful at intimidating voters."

But for Francisco Heredia, the national field director for Mi Familia Vota, a Latino voter–mobilization group, the threat is a little more real this year than usual. Trump's request for poll watchers is putting Mi Familia Vota on its toes, even though it's a little vague. "We're not sure what that means, so that's some of the concern for us," said Heredia, who is based in Arizona—a normally reliably Republican state that might go to Clinton this time. Violence may be unlikely, but the mere thought of someone's eyes on voters while they pull their levers this year is nerve-wracking.

And in a swing state, that uncertainty itself is part of the problem.

"What we're now contending with are statements that can have the effect of discouraging turnout on election day," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The Lawyers' Committee and Mi Familia Vota are largely focused on a form of Election Day nuisance that predates the Trump campaign: formal challenges mounted against minority voters.

"In 2012 and 2014, True the Vote, a conservative organization, mobilized volunteers to be poll watchers," Heredia told me. True the Vote claims to be nonpartisan despite its affiliation with a Tea Party action group called King Street Patriots, and like many poll-watching organizations, it doesn't advertise itself as a group that bugs people at polling places. Mostly, according to a 2012 New York Times piece, "True the Vote's plan is to scrutinize the validity of voter registration rolls and voters who appear at the polls." The Times says the primary targets are "noncitizens who are registered to vote, those without proper identification, others who may be registered twice, and dead people." But groups like True the Vote are also routinely accused of harassing minority voters in particular.

Heredia is right to worry, according to Clarke. "We've received reports of efforts to mobilize untrained poll watchers in Arizona," she told me. And Arziona has had problems with voter intimidation from anti-immigrant activists in the past. In 2004 and 2006 a Tucson-based handyman and anti-immigrant crusader named Russ Dove showed up at some of the polls in his area to stick a camcorder in the faces of Latino voters and demand that they speak English. That second time, Dove brought along a compatriot who supposedly flashed a gun around. An activist lawyer named Diego Bernal said to the Arizona Daily Star in 2006, "A gun, a camera, a clipboard before you even get to the polls—if that's not voter intimidation, what is?"

And while such cases are, in Heredia's estimation, "few and far between," they're often concentrated in areas where they can be politically effective.

One of the most vivid modern examples of voter intimidation happened in Pennsylvania, in a case that has become famous in the right-wing media. In 2008, a small contingent of New Black Panthers—members of what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls an antisemitic hate group—showed up at a polling place in Philadelphia, seemingly just to scare the hell out of people.

Poll watching is generally regarded as boring-as-fuck volunteer work to be performed by the Lisa Simpsons of the world. But "the right of the public to monitor elections" is "one of the things we really value" in a democratic society, Shellenberger told me. Poll watchers are deployed by many groups, including the local Democratic and Republican Parties, often showing up with a checklist, Shellenberger said. They go around and make sure the polling place is well-staffed, because the actual poll officials tend not to be handed tons of resources. "They value having extra eyes and ears on the ground."

But official poll workers have observed those ostensibly innocent poll monitors going rogue. For instance, here in California, all the way back in 1988, the Orange County Republican Party deployed workers dressed as security guards to hang around polling places in heavily Latino precincts warning non-citizens not to vote. The state election authorities got involved and booted the guards, calling their presence "unlawful intimidation of voters."

Under the Voting Rights Act, federal officials used to show up and—among other duties—watch those watchmen, just in case they were doing something fishy. "The Justice Department recently announced the termination of a core part of that program, leaving voters vulnerable, particularly in the South," Clarke told me, a development prompted by the Supreme Court's 2013 decision to repeal certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act. This year, less than half of the states officially considered in need of federal election observers are going to get them.

In short: I probably won't get harassed at a polling place, if only because I'm a white Californian, but in this batshit crazy year for democracy, why even go to the polls and face the vaguest possibility of a hassle from some activist?

"Personally," Heredia said, "I'm gonna get my ballot at home, because it's easier for me."

Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of Voter Intimidation?

3/5: Sweating It

Voting is your right. If someone messes with you at your polling place, call 866-OUR-VOTE. Depending on your state, you may be legally entitled to take video of poll watchers, or anyone at a polling place who crosses the line.

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