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Trump’s call for election monitors could mean violence at the polls

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump fills out paperwork at his polling place in New York, Tuesday, April 19, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump fills out paperwork at his polling place in New York, Tuesday, April 19, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Donald Trump began soliciting volunteers this weekend to serve as “election observers,” asking people to monitor the polls to help him “stop Crooked Hillary from rigging this election.”

The Republican nominee’s request may be violating both rules against voter intimidation and a longstanding consent decree against the Republican National Committee. But perhaps more frightening is the potential for violence at the polls, given that Trump has, on more than one occasion, made comments that are interpreted by his supporters as incitements of violence.

Less than a week ago, for example, Trump implied that “Second Amendment people” may be able to do something to stop Clinton from winning the presidency.

Election law expert Rick Hasen, who pointed out that Trump’s call for election monitors may violate the decades-old RNC prohibition on voter fraud prevention efforts, also noted that Trump’s suggestion could be be dangerous.

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“One of the things that this can do is get rogue people riled up,” he told the Washington Post. “Trump sets the fuse and lets someone else do the explosion. It strikes me as a very dangerous thing to be suggesting, because it does lend itself to the possibility of violence at the polls.”

“It strikes me as a very dangerous thing to be suggesting, because it does lend itself to the possibility of violence at the polls.”

That violence could be lethal in at least several states that allow people to carry firearms into polling places.

Every state allows the carrying of concealed weapons in some form and most states allow the open carry of a firearm, most with a state-issued permit. Meanwhile, only ten states (Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, South Carolina and Texas) explicitly prevent weapons from being carried into polling places.

Many people vote in places like schools or government buildings, locations where most states ban concealed carry. But many elections are also held in private locations like churches or stores, where gun possession is up to the owner’s discretion. Only 12 states bar people from carrying guns in all places of worship.

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Though the law varies by state, gun owners have been known to carry their weapons to the polls in past elections. In Georgia, where the law explicitly prevents guns from being carried within 150 feet of any election location, some counties decided in 2014 to allow them anyway.

Alabama was another state that allowed voters in some counties to carry firearms to the polls in 2014. As the New York Times reported before that election, the Alabama Sheriffs Association, “fearing that an open display of weapons might frighten some voters, urged the state’s 67 counties to ban unconcealed firearms from polling places.” The effort failed, and the attorney general reiterated that polling places are not included in the list of banned firearm locations in Alabama.

Several counties still insisted on a ban, including Shelby County, whose sheriff said that he would ban open-carry at polling places in his county unless he was otherwise directed.

Fears may be compounded this year given Trump’s presence on the ballot. Throughout his campaign, Trump has made comments that could incite radicals to commit violent acts. While Trump may not be specifically instructing people to act violently, extremists and right-wing terrorists could be encouraged by his rhetoric that appears to normalize that type of activity.

Even before Trump’s “Second Amendment people” comments, some people expressed fear about potential violence at polling places. Officials in Virginia’s largest school district decided to close school on the day of the March primary because 124 Fairfax County schools were used as polling places, and Electoral Board Secretary Katherine K. Hanley said she feared that the “GOP loyalty pledge” that voters were required to sign before casting a ballot in the Republican primary could lead to arguments or fights.

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And in Florida, a mosque has been nixed from the list of polling places for the August 30 primary and November general election after the county elections supervisor said she received about 50 complaints, including threats of violence, from people who don’t want to vote in an Islamic place of worship.