President Donald Trump's campaign appears to be using volunteers to try to prove voter fraud while simultaneously asking courts to OK further restrictions in the key presidential battleground of Pennsylvania where Joe Biden narrowly leads, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro's office said Thursday.
Shapiro, a Democrat, is investigating multiple "disturbances" between these Trump campaign volunteers and voters who were filmed or photographed dropping off absentee ballots, according to Shapiro's communications director, Jacklin Rhoads.
She said the images have popped up in lawsuits the Trump campaign has brought to tighten voting laws, without much success, while The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the campaign has been using such pictures to pressure election officials into policy changes.
Early incidents like the ones Shapiro's office is investigating have raised alarm about "poll watchers" — the official, party-sanctioned kind, or simply people showing up to places where voting is taking place — in part because of the president's frequent and false claims of widespread voter fraud and repeated calls for his supporters to "watch" the polls and stop it.
Official poll watchers, whose job is to observe and document the election processes to make sure everything runs smoothly in the hopes of boosting transparency and trust in the system, are an ordinary part of elections and both parties employ them. They typically cannot talk to voters, but some states, including Pennsylvania, allow certain poll monitors to challenge a voter's eligibility, requiring that person's ballot to undergo additional vetting from poll workers to be counted.
"It’s a little like cataloguing aircrafts that fly by in the hopes that you see a UFO, and what you end up with is a lot of Delta commuter flights," Justin Levitt, a former Department of Justice deputy assistant attorney general overseeing voting rights cases and now professor at Loyola Law School, said of the ordinary poll watching process.
But with tensions high four days to go, state officials and law enforcement tell NBC News they are actively working to counter fears of harassment and deploy resources on Election Day, while voting rights advocates warn that the fears of poll watchers might actually be bigger than the reality.
The Trump campaign has pushed back on the idea that its operation will intimidate voters.
“We are confident our training programs effectively teach our poll watchers the proper conduct of a polling location — and that unequivocally does not include intimidating voters,” Thea McDonald, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, said in a statement to NBC News.
What some states are doing to counter unsanctioned poll patrols
In September, Trump zeroed in on Philadelphia, claiming that there was fraud going on because his campaign's poll watchers were refused entry to a satellite election office — somewhere state law does not allow them to be.
"I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that's what has to happen," Trump said during the first presidential debate, singling out that incident. "In Philadelphia, they went in to watch, they were called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren't allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things."
City officials responded by setting up a voter intimidation hotline that allows voters to call prosecutors directly; they've staffed 80 attorneys and detectives to work on election issues Nov. 3, the district attorney's office said. The rest of the district attorney's office? Also on call.
"We will not be cowed or ruled by a lawless, power-hungry despot. Some folks learned that the hard way in the 1700s," Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said in a statement this week. "Keep your Proud Boys, goon squads, and uncertified ‘poll watchers’ out of our city, Mr. President. Break the law here, and I’ve got something for you.”
In other battleground states, incidents unaffiliated with the campaign have seen officials and voting organizations attempting to ward off the potential for violence near the polls.
In Michigan, another swing state, officials are appealing a court ruling that blocked attempts to ban open carry at polling locations following a militia plot to kidnap the governor. In Florida, early voting sites in Pinellas County will be guarded by sheriff's deputies after a pair of armed individuals showed up outside a polling place this month.
In Minnesota, state officials successfully struck a deal to block a private security company from recruiting former military personnel to send to the polls in what it said was an effort to guard against left-wing activists.
In Ohio, the League of Women Voters has recruited dozens of "peacekeepers" — clergy and social workers trained in de-escalation tactics — across the state.
Jen Miller, the organization's executive director, said in an interview that armed, pro-Trump demonstrators showed up across the street from a Board of Elections this past weekend, so the group deployed a team to stand nearby.
"Their job was to keep an eye on things and exude a sense of calm and peace in hopes that that would create comfort for voters," she said, adding that clergy dressed in religious garb might be more welcome than police for some voters.
At an election press briefing by half a dozen secretaries of state, several said they were working with the FBI to prepare for potential voter intimidation issues.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, said he’d met with the state’s two U.S. attorneys and the FBI to prepare for the upcoming election.
“The law is very clear that voters may not be impeded,” LaRose said, adding that he’d sent a memo to the state’s sheriffs “outlining exactly what the rules are and what our expectations are.”
Asked about efforts to prevent voter intimidation and about these meetings, an FBI official confirmed the agency was preparing for a “host” of potential scenarios.
“Of course, our preparations for 2020 take into account the current climate of the country,” the official said.
Voting rights advocates aren't sweating yet
Levitt, who worked in the Justice Department handling voting rights cases under then-President Barack Obama, said that conservatives had promised poll watcher campaigns in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 with limited results.
"Historically, it doesn’t show up in the numbers and certainly not to the extent that people are freaked out about it now," he said. "It’s possible this is the year, but I keep hearing every year this is the year. And at some point, you kind of look around and say, 'OK, we might be waiting for the year for awhile.'"
Wendy Weiser, vice president of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, believes that the president's rhetoric might actually have helped officials, voting rights groups and others prepare to prevent voter intimidation.
She stressed that there are laws and long-standing election systems infrastructure designed to prevent voters from being intimidated. Voters who have any trouble casting their ballot can call the voter protection hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE — NBC News is one of many news outlets that review those complaints, through a partnership with ProPublica's Electionland — and she said there are numerous rules and regulations designed to protect voters.
"It’s absolutely concerning when the president of the United States is making comments that are being perceived as encouraging voter intimidation,” Weiser said. “But should voters be actually intimidated by those remarks? No. The law strictly prohibits intimidation.”
Sarah Brannon, managing attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, said she's optimistic poll watchers — at least the official, party-sanctioned ones — will not be an issue
"It’s a fairly restricted activity. In most states even if your vote is challenged, you can still vote" by filling out an affidavit," she said.
Suzanne Almeida, the interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said "the short answer is, we’re a little bit worried about everything."
But she noted that challenged voters in Pennsylvania can get a witness to verify their identity, or vote with a provisional ballot and later prove their identity.
She said she is part of a large coalition of election protection groups that will have 2,000 volunteers on the ground monitoring the polls and "roving teams" deployed to any problem areas.
"We are really trying to plan for every eventuality," she said. "And hope that we need to use none of our contingency plans."
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