Trump tells his supporters to watch polling places in urban areas

It’s getting pretty close to the line of voter intimidation.

CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locher
CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locher

At a rally near Detroit on Friday, Donald Trump urged his supporters to monitor polling places to make sure everything is on the “up and up.”

“You’ve been reading the same stories as I’ve been reading, so go to your place and vote. And then go pick some other place and go sit there with your friends and make sure it’s on the up and up,” the GOP nominee said. “Because you know what, that’s a big, big problem in this country and nobody wants to talk about it. So go and watch these polling places.”

He then made a nod toward election rigging, suggesting “that would be one hell of a way to lose.”

Friday night’s comments echo similar statements Trump made at a rally in Altoona, Pennsylvania this summer encouraging his supporters to take election monitoring into their own hands.

At that event, Trump told the crowd to “go down to certain areas” and “make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.” Another speaker at the Altoona event, GOP Rep. Bill Shuster, specifically called out one of the state’s largest urban areas, saying that “the people in western and central Pennsylvania have to overcome what goes on down in Philadelphia.”

Both Detroit and Philadelphia, of course, are areas with large populations of black voters where Trump is unlikely to have much support to begin with. The GOP nominee is polling at zero percent in Detroit and among black voters in Pennsylvania, according to Detroit News and NBC News polls.

Although voter fraud is virtually non-existent in the United States, Trump has made the specter of fraudulent ballots a central element of his campaign. He frequently suggests the electoral process can’t be trusted and says the system is “rigged” for Hillary Clinton. And he has specifically called for volunteer “election observers” to help him “stop Crooked Hillary.”

This rhetoric is resonating among Republican voters. A poll released this weekend found that nearly half of Trump’s supporters don’t trust that votes will be counted accurately this election.

Election observers play an important role in the democratic process. But Trump’s rhetoric raises questions about how far his supporters might be inspired to go to harass people at the polls — particularly if those supporters are already too skeptical about the integrity of the vote counting process.

In a piece published in Politico Magazine this past week, an academic who’s overseen state election observation efforts expressed concerns that Trump supporters might go too far to discourage people from casting ballots. Jocelyn Benson, the dean of Wayne State University of Law School, writes that Trump’s particular brand of “poll watching” might actually translate to making it more difficult for people of color to vote.

It’s useful to ask what Trump’s intent is in deploying poll-watchers. Judging from his public statements and dire predictions of a “rigged” election, Trump does not seem concerned about protecting voters from discrimination or ensuring that all eligible voters are able to cast their ballots. Instead, he’s concerned that he will lose. Informed by the candidate’s “rigged” rhetoric and suggestions that there is widespread voter fraud, Trump’s observers seem primed to mainly challenge voters’ eligibility.

Trump seems to be advocating for a type of election monitoring that relies on volunteers to use deceptive practices that are often used to prevent people of color from voting. […] Trump’s worry is not that legitimate voters will be prevented from casting a ballot; his concern is that they will vote.

Making matters worse, this will be the first presidential election in 50 years without a functioning Voting Rights Act, after a 2013 Supreme Court decision gutted key pieces of the landmark civil rights legislation.

That means the Department of Justice — which used to deploy trained election observers to oversee districts with a history of suppressing minority voters’ rights — won’t have the same power to keep an eye on the polls in every state where people of color have historically been disenfranchised.