Deep in the Democratic stronghold of Fairfax County, Virginia, about 50 of President Donald Trump's supporters gathered, wrapping themselves in American flags and waving Trump 2020 banners as they chanted, "Four more years! Four more years!"
It was Sept. 19, and the county had begun early voting. The Republican volunteers stood on the sidewalk outside the concrete county government center building. Steps away, voters waited to cast their ballot while lined up on blue social distancing markers.
As the crowd grew – along with the chants – county elections officials began whisking the voters into the building, despite concerns of spreading COVID-19. County officials explained that several voters felt threatened by the crowd and requested escorts in and out of the polling place, though the Trump volunteers had not violated any election laws.
"We were actually trying to encourage people to vote," said Sean Rastatter, 23, a software engineer and Republican who helped organize the event aimed at increasing GOP turnout. "The point of it was to remind people that early voting was taking place, since it had started a few days earlier. There wasn't anything close to voter intimidation."
Trump's call for an "army" of supporters to "monitor" voting has raised concerns during an already vitriolic presidential election campaign about voter intimidation and suppression of minority groups.
Voting rights activists and government officials said they worry Trump's supporters will scare away Democratic voters fearful of confrontation, including voters from Hispanic, Black, Asian and indigenous communities who have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic, police violence, immigration enforcement and growing rates of hate crimes under the Trump administration.
“The rhetoric itself is suppressive," said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat. “All of that taken together is aimed to suppress turnout. As elections officials, we have to clearly state that voter suppression is systemic racism."
Trump calls for an 'army'
In repeated tweets, speeches and paid advertisements, Trump and his campaign have called for an "army" of poll watchers to monitor contested election areas. "Fight for President Trump," reads one ad on Twitter, directing supporters to the website "ArmyForTrump.com."
Trump has repeatedly called the election "corrupt," which some experts said is aimed at reducing confidence in the results and dissuading some voters from even bothering to cast a ballot. That would favor Trump whose core supporters – older, white Americans – are the most consistent voters, regardless of circumstance.
Trump tweeted Friday that a mistake by an elections board in Ohio in sending out ballots to the wrong voters was further evidence of a "rigged election." The elections board said new ballots were being distributed.
"My biggest concern, and both sides do this, is undermining confidence in elections across the board," Trey Grayson, a Republican and former Kentucky secretary of state, said Tuesday. "We've got to have people trust the outcome. The losers have to believe it was a fair fight."
There have been few concrete examples of voter intimidation at polling sites, though the USA has a long history of violence against people of color during elections, including state and local lawmen attacking Black voting rights activists with nightsticks and tear gas in Alabama in 1965, which resulted in the passage that year of the federal Voting Rights Act.
Rastatter, the Republican from Fairfax County, said he'd never participate in anything that scared off voters. He said voter intimidation is a serious charge, and police who investigated the incident declared no laws were broken.
"This is one of these elections where people are so hyper partisan," he said.
Fearful to vote
Experts said even subtle shifts in voting patterns could change the outcome of elections.
During the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush won Florida and its 25 Electoral College votes by just 537 votes.
Voter suppression could shape races for state legislatures, which will use the 2020 census results next session to map out election boundaries. In most states, whatever party controls the legislature determines how those boundaries are drawn and can use them to gerrymander favorable districts for Congress.
“This is all, in my mind, to deter people from showing up at the polls," said Myrna Perez, director of New York University's Brennan Center for Justice's Voting Rights and Elections Program. "These statements are designed to make people fearful to vote."
Mary McCord, a former top federal prosecutor focusing on national security and a professor at Georgetown Law School in Washington, said her biggest fear is that armed groups of Trump supporters will "self-activate" in response to his calls to watch polling places.
Last week, Michigan state and federal prosecutors arrested 13 men they said conspired to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Prosecutors said the men discussed trying Whitmer for treason over COVID-19 closures that Trump opposed. On April 17, Trump tweeted, "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" as part of a series of tweets criticizing Whitmer, a Democrat, and pandemic-related lockdowns.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, another Democrat and frequent focus of Trump criticism, was targeted by the same group, the FBI said Tuesday.
"Some people are just not very smart and buy into conspiracy theories. And some people are smart, and they would happily disenfranchise voters," McCord said. "You can't ignore the disinformation coming straight from the president. He right now is the greatest threat to our democracy. And people do act on the things he says."
The concerns are building at least in part because of a rise in violent hate crimes. The FBI said last year that although the overall number of hate crimes dropped slightly in 2018, the number of violent hate crimes hit a 16-year high – from intimidation and assault to homicide.
A Department of Homeland Security report last month concluded that white supremacists "will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland."
During the first presidential debate Sept. 29, Trump called for the far-right Proud Boys group to "stand back and stand by." Though the White House said Trump was condemning the group, its members declared they were ready to follow his orders.
"I'm concerned they'll take the constant daily tweets about election fraud, that that's their signal, in their view, their license to self-activate," McCord said. "They put on this façade, these right-wing groups, that they are patriots and that they have an obligation to protect the vote or protect the election or protect the president."
Voter fraud? No. Suppression? Yes.
Elections experts said that there's no evidence to support Trump's complaints about widespread voter fraud but that fair elections are under attack.
Grayson, the former Kentucky election official who served as president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said it's no secret politicians want to "shape the electorate."
Until 2018, the Republican National Committee had to submit all of its poll-watching plans for review by a judge after getting caught hiring off-duty law enforcement officers and stationing them only in minority precincts during the New Jersey governor's election in 1981. Those armed officers wore "National Ballot Security Task Force" armbands and demanded Black or Latino voters show voting registration cards.
The poll-watching consent decree expired in 2018. In 2013, the Supreme Court eliminated a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring areas with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before changing the rules. Fourteen states – all but one controlled by Republican legislatures – toughened voter ID laws.
Republican operatives were linked to the data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 presidential race, which targeted 3.5 million Black Americans for "deterrence," according to an investigation by Channel 4 News in London. The report said operatives bought Facebook advertisements aimed at dissuading Black voters from casting a ballot, rather than trying to persuade them to pick one candidate over another.
Though the federal government has typically taken the lead in enforcing the Voting Rights Act, some liberal activists worry the Trump administration's Justice Department lacks the interest to aggressively protect voting rights.
"We understand there are folks who came before us who were literally risking their lives to vote," said Jamal Watkins, the NAACP's vice president of civic engagement. "This notion that violence is a ruse and not real – it scares a lot of us."
Watkins said that given the revelations about the role Cambridge Analytica played in dissuading Black voters, it's not surprising that turnout among Black voters dropped in 2016 for the first time in 20 years during a presidential election, falling below 60%, according to the Pew Research Center. Black voter turnout had hit a record high of 66.6% in 2012, when Democrat Barack Obama, the nation's only Black president, won a second term.
A Brennan Center study found that wait times in 2018 for Black and Hispanic voters averaged 45% longer than for white voters, a more subtle form of voter suppression than outright intimidation.
"We're not blind. We see there's an intentionality behind all of this. That's the sad truth," Watkins said. "This is not conspiracy theory. This is factual. We have seen it play out in what happened in 2016."
Voting advocates say Trump has brought intimidation to new levels
Some voting rights activists said they are worried Trump's call for poll monitors sets an unprecedented tone.
Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Party, said part of the problem stems from a misunderstanding of what it means to be a certified poll watcher, a legally defined role at the county level. He said the president can't just order supporters to look over voters' shoulders.
“You're not going to be allowed into the voting booth area, and you're not going to be allowed to intimidate voters who are standing in line waiting to go vote. But when you have someone of the president's authority saying something like that, rank-and-file Americans who support the president want to be helpful and will show up on Election Day and go, ‘Well, I'm here to watch the polls,’” Steele said. "And then, of course, you run into the problem of some thickheads who want to come armed to the polls, which is nothing more than intimidation.”
Six states and the District of Columbia explicitly ban guns at polling sites, and weapons are generally banned inside polling places at schools or other public property. Though using a firearm to intimidate someone is illegal, simply carrying it in public doesn't violate the law as long as the carrier maintains a certain distance from the polling site, usually 50 to 100 feet.
In Fairfax County, election officials said social media videos provided a misleading perspective on the Trump rally, whose participants never got closer than 100 feet to the polling site. Voting rights advocates said what happened offers a glimpse into potential problems as more Americans vote in person. They said voting by mail or voting early are among the best ways to avoid Election Day polling problems. Lawyers across the country are prepared to defend voters in the courts, as needed.
“We need to be ready. … Folks need to know their community, have a plan, be prepared for contingencies and persist,” Perez said.
Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said "targeted harassment" is very much a concern this election.
"We have enough examples in recent memory where elections have been called in states on razor-thin margins. We need to make sure everyone eligible is able to cast a vote and have that vote counted," said Gupta, who led the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under the Obama administration. "Every single vote does matter."
That's why it's critically important elections officials at all levels encourage every qualified voter to vote, said Griswold, the Colorado elections official. Like many of her colleagues, both Republican and Democrat, Griswold has reassured voters that the process is safe, secure and trustworthy. Griswold said she gets calls from Black community leaders every time Trump tweets or speaks about poll watchers.
"Voting is supposed to be the great equalizer for our communities," she said. “Every American deserves a democracy we can believe in. And that starts at the polls.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2020 election: Trump 'army' of poll watchers stirs fears of violence