Donald Trump’s claims of “large-scale” voter fraud have prompted officials across the political spectrum to warn about the dangers of vigilante poll monitors, amid fears of confrontations or even violence on US election day.
As opinion polls tightened this week between Trump and Hillary Clinton ahead of Tuesday's presidential vote, there are concerns of chaos following his claims, without serious evidence, that the election could be "rigged" and his refusal to say if he will accept the outcome.
The Democrat party has launched a series of legal challenges around the country alleging voter intimidation, and on Friday in the battleground state of Ohio a judge issued a temporary restraining order against Trump's campaign and his unofficial adviser Roger Stone. The ruling said anyone who engaged in intimidation or harassment inside or near Ohio polling places would face contempt of court charges.
Republican leaders in some battleground states are reporting a surge of volunteers signing up to serve as official poll watchers, and in an unprecedented move, the Trump campaign itself has since August been requesting that volunteers sign up as “election observers” to “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!”.
Stone, meanwhile, has said he has helped recruit people to do “exit polls” to tackle voter fraud and denies .
The nation’s most prominent anti-government militia and a neo-Nazi group have also announced plans to send their members to monitor for voter fraud outside the polls.
Former US attorney general Alberto Gonzales, a Republican who served under the administration of George W Bush and took a noted hardline on election fraud allegations, expressed caution. "I wouldn't be a big fan of those kind of private efforts, quite honestly. I would depend on the state and local officials to make sure of the integrity of the vote within particular precincts. The danger, of course, is that if you have a very heavy-handed presence that may in fact intimidate certain people based upon their age and their education."
The Ohio Democratic party had claimed in its lawsuit that the Ohio GOP, the Trump campaign, Stone and Stone's political action committee Stop the Steal were conspiring to suppress minorities in urban areas from casting ballots.
Stone said in court papers filed on Friday that he has no intention to break any laws or regulations or target voters because of their race.
Republicans, who say that party volunteers are engaging in normal poll watching, have fought back against charges of wrongdoing before judges in Nevada and Arizona. Some Republican officials have said they have no coordination with the "exit poll" efforts Stone is involved with. In Nevada, a federal judge expressed doubt that the Trump campaign itself was engaging in any inappropriate behavior. Arguments are to be heard in Pennsylvania on Monday.
There have been fears that some individuals may be present with guns outside polling stations to intimidate voters in states with open carry laws. However, there is no evidence of groups, or advocates who disagree with Clinton’s stance on firearms regulation, organizing such attempts.
Last month it was revealed that a Republican operative, Mike Roman – notorious for stirring allegations of voter intimidation in the 2008 election – would coordinate the Trump monitor program, but the campaign has declined to provide details on the size and scale of the program and it remains unclear how many people will show up.
Critics warned, however, that the program was having a chilling effect. Cornell William Brooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – which led the charge for voting equality during the civil rights era – said Trump's election observer program, combined with restrictive voting laws in many states, was a reminder of "a long, sordid, ugly history of racially based voter suppression and voter intimidation in this country".
“We can’t view this as anything other than civic bullying,” said Brooks, who branded some of these unofficial poll-watching efforts as “civically unconscionable, and certainly legally unconstitutional”.
Brooks said the NAACP, along with a coalition of 100 other advocacy and legal groups including advocates representing Latino, Arab American and Muslim voters, had formed a so-called Selma mobilisation, and would target polling stations across the country to watch for voter intimidation.
“We are treating this as the midnight hour of our democracy. Make no mistake: we’ve seen violence in Trump rallies, the KKK endorsing this campaign, white nationalists turning up at the NAACP headquarters – is violence out of the question on election day? Perhaps not.”
Voting rights advocates have focused on the potential threat posed by Trump supporters, like the Ohio man who told a reporter he wanted to keep a close eye on “people who can’t speak American” at the polls.
While having trained partisan observers inside polling places is a normal part of the voting process, "Trump has encouraged people to go on their own and check out what's going on in polling places", said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California Irvine law school and one of the country's leading election law experts. "These are going to be untrained people hyped up on what Trump has said.
“I’m worried that there are going to be confrontations and potential violence at the polls,” he said.
The fringe groups that have announced plans to monitor for voter fraud said their members should be dressed in plainclothes and quietly watching for illegal behavior – not engaging in confrontations.
Under pressure from a Democratic party lawsuit, the Trump campaign in Nevada, a crucial swing state, has already given official Republican poll watchers extra warnings against engaging in any kind of voter intimidation, according to a court filing.
Though the national Trump campaign has not commented on its monitoring effort, legal filings in the Democratic lawsuit in Nevada, as well as in Virginia, suggest the election monitoring volunteers who sign up on Trump's website may be receiving standard legal training and working as typical partisan poll watchers.
Democrats and voting rights advocates argue that poll-watching efforts are only one part of a larger Republican effort to discourage or block racial minorities from voting – and that Republican concerns over “voter fraud” are simply a mask for a broad campaign of racial disenfranchisement. The spread of laws requiring voters to show ID at the polls, restrictions on early voting times, and poll location closures are all designed to disadvantage racial minorities who tend to vote for Democrats, advocates say.
The NAACP filed a new lawsuit against North Carolina this week alleging that black voters were being disproportionately purged from the state's voter rolls. "This sounds like something that was put together in 1901," a federal judge said at an emergency hearing, calling the purging process "insane".
The judge issued an order Friday finding that the purge likely violated the National Voter Registration Act, and ordered that state elections officials “take all steps necessary to restore the voter registrations that were canceled.”
Trump’s repeated, unprecedented claims that the election has already been “rigged” against him have given new fuel to conservative claims that non-citizens are voting and that votes are being stolen on a massive scale.
In a "new effort", the National Socialist Movement, a white nationalist, neo-Nazi organization, is planning to send out hundreds of members to watch for voter fraud outside polling places in 48 states, with a focus on California, Illinois, Florida and Michigan, Butch Urban, the group's chief of staff, said.
Members would not be wearing their uniforms or National Socialist Movement gear. “They’re going to look like everybody else that’s going in there to vote,” Urban said.
He called voter fraud “so rampant”, and said the group would have lawyers on call.
The president of one of America’s largest anti-government armed militia groups, the Oath Keepers, called on members last week to take part in undercover poll-watching under the moniker of “Operation Sabot 2016”.
In a bizarre set of instructions to the group's reported 30,000 members – an organization of "current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders" – Stewart Rhodes, a former US army paratrooper, also encouraged members to "blend in" among voters and attempt to record evidence of widespread voter fraud.
"That may mean wearing a Bob Marley, pot leaf, tie-die (sic) peace symbol, or 'Che' Guevara T-Shirt, etc," Rhodes, who declined to be interviewed, wrote in an online callout to members.
Rhodes wrote that members should not openly carry their guns – “We do NOT want open-carry (remember, again, that this is a covert operation)” – and that they should be aware of laws barring even concealed gun carrying in polling places.
Liberal advocates said that poll monitoring from groups that include law enforcement members, like the Oath Keepers, were a concern. Historically, efforts to mobilize off-duty police officers to patrol voting places "has had a chilling effect on African American and other minority voters", Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said last week.
The group is urging voters to report any potential problems, including the possibility of “armed vigilantes stationing themselves outside polling sites in some communities”.
Though many gun owners view Hillary Clinton’s gun control agenda as a serious threat, gun advocates in several battleground states said they had not heard of any organized plans for gun owners to make a show of carrying their firearms outside polling places.
"I'm sure you might see some local yokels who are going to pull that trash off, but I don't see that as something you're going to see in a lot of places," said John Correia, a firearms instructor who runs Active Self Protection, an Arizona-based self-defense training company. "That kind of stupidity the vast majority of law-abiding gun owners completely eschews."
A voter fraud monitoring effort led by a controversial Trump adviser has already become the target of lawsuits from local Democratic parties in six different states, alleging he is “conspiring” with local Republican parties “to threaten, intimidate, and thereby prevent minority voters in urban neighborhoods from voting”.
Informal Trump adviser Roger Stone's Stop the Steal effort claims that a group of nearly 3,000 monitors nationwide will be conducting "exit polls" to watch for voter fraud. Although the former Nixon adviser claims the polling will be scientific, the online portal for "Stop the Steal" is full of technical flaws.
The exit poll in Pennsylvania has already “registered” 177 volunteers logging 27 votes counted (63% for Trump) – despite the fact there is no early polling at all in the state.
Hasen, the election law expert, said the effort sounded more like a "goon squad" or a "dirty trick" than a scientific exit polling strategy. As part of the Democratic lawsuit, Trump's Nevada campaign and the state Republican party say they have had no coordination with Stop the Seal's efforts.
On Friday, Stone said he did not "run" or set-up Stop the Steal, and had no control of its bank accounts, but said "I do assist in managing one of its projects".
Reports from Republican officials in some battleground states suggest a broad swell of public concern over voter fraud – and a new eagerness among Republican voters to monitor the voting process. In Arizona, more than 1,000 local Republicans have signed up to be poll watchers, a fivefold increase since the last presidential election, state party spokesman Tim Sifert said, though it's not clear how many will actually show up.
In Fort Worth, Texas, the county Republican party office has been fielding calls from supporters about poll watching, and they now have enough volunteers to put a Republican in some role in all of the county's 346 voting locations, county chairman Tim O'Hare said. The number of Republican volunteers in previous years was "not even close", he said. "In any modern time, we've never had somebody at every spot."
In Virginia, Reagan George, a voter fraud prevention advocate who leads Republican poll watcher training sessions, said: “From what I’m gathering from the people I’ve made contact with, they’ve probably trained more people with this election than they have in 30 years.”
The state party did not respond to a request for comment.
In Pennsylvania, where Trump has repeatedly made wild allegations of voter fraud, a state GOP spokeswoman said they had measured “a small uptick” in poll watcher registration since 2012.
Local Republican officials in other battleground states downplayed the issue, with an Ohio Trump campaign spokesman saying the campaign would monitor voting activities “as candidates from both parties in Ohio have done in every recent statewide and presidential election”, and a Republican party spokeswoman from Michigan saying there was “nothing different” about poll watching this election cycle.
The Republican National Committee is still being monitored by a federal judge over past alleged intimidation of minority voters. In 1981, the group sent armed off-duty law enforcement officers wearing "Ballot Security Task Force" arm bands to patrol the polls in minority neighborhoods. Under a federal consent decree, the RNC is still banned from participating in any "ballot security" programs "aimed at preventing voter fraud".
The Democratic National Committee has been battling in court this week to prove that the RNC has violated this ban. In legal filings, lawyers for the RNC said it has nothing to do with Trump's proposed poll watching efforts and that it is abiding by its consent decree. It slammed what it called the Democrats' "tabloid litigation tactics".
While small-scale voter fraud has been documented, there is simply no evidence to support claims of widespread voter fraud or "election theft", as others describe it. The Bush administration's own crackdown against the practice, led by the former attorney general Gonzales and lasting five years, resulted in just 86 convictions by 2007, many of which were for minor infractions such as completing multiple voter registration forms.
Researchers at the Loyola Marymount University found just 31 instances of voter impersonation out of a billion votes cast in numerous US elections between 2000 and 2014.
Voting rights advocates have warned that 2016 will be the first presidential election since a 2013 supreme court ruling severely weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which offered significant legislative safeguards to African American, Latino and other minority voters.
The ruling has also weakened the Department of Justice's authority and resources to monitor local polling places. The DoJ will still send "hundreds" of monitors across the country and work "cooperatively" with local jurisdictions to "keep an eye on the proceedings", Vanita Gupta, the head of the department's civil rights division, said in a statement.
Some voters have already reported tense interactions at the polls during early voting. Alyssa Day, a New York Times-bestselling author who lives in Florida, said she watched an older white man scream insults at a young black woman inside a polling place on Monday in St Johns County.
“He started yelling, ‘she’s a racist, she’s a racist’, and she was trying to explain he had said something offensive to her in the parking lot and she told him, basically, ‘leave me alone’,” Day said.
Inside the polling place, she said the man was shouting: “I’m going to sue you.”
The man appeared to be just another voter, not a poll watcher or affiliated with a campaign, Day said.
A sheriff’s deputy at the polling place quickly intervened, Day said, and the young woman was able to vote. But Day offered to walk the woman back to her car afterwards, she said.
“She was shaken. I was very shaken,” Day said. “I think this election year has been so incredibly divisive, and that’s carrying right into the polling places.”