Echoing Reasons for Issuance of 1981 Consent Decree Against the RNC, Trump Threatens to Send Law Enforcement to Watch Polls. What Happens Next?

Back in 1981, the RNC agreed to a consent decree, which remained in place in various forms until 2017. It prevented the RNC from engaging in certain activities which intimidated minority voters. As I explained in this January 2019 Slate piece:

In connection with the 1981 New Jersey Gubernatorial election, the RNC and the New Jersey Republican State Committee attempted to intimidate the minority voters, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Specifically, the RNC sent sample ballots to areas where a large portion of the voters were ethnic minorities, then asked that the name of each voter whose sample ballot was returned as undeliverable be removed from New Jersey’s voter rolls. In addition, in an alleged effort of intimidation, the RNC hired off-duty law enforcement officers to patrol polling places in minority precincts. The officers wore armbands that read: “National Ballot Security Task Force,” and some carried two-way radios and firearms.

I warned in that 2019 piece that

We can only guess what Trump and the RNC, now freed from this consent decree, will have planned for 2020. Trump has irresponsibly used allegations of voter fraud and stolen elections to delegitimize his opposition and rile up his base. During the 2018 election, he made unfounded allegations that Democrats were trying to steal the U.S. Senate seat in Florida from Rick Scott during state-required recounts of ballots in the close election.

Had Trump not taken over the RNC, I would not be so concerned about the demise of the decree. Thirty-five years is a long time, and many of the Republican lawyers I know would bristle at some of the tactics that the RNC had used in the past. But Trump likely has different plans in mind, and it would not surprise me to see Democrats and voting rights activists running back to court in 2020, trying to stop the renewal of odious tactics that should have by now been consigned to the history books

Well tonight, speaking to Sean Hannity on FOX News, Trump said the following in response to a Hannity question about poll watching: “We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement, and we’re going to have, hopefully, US attorneys, and we’re going to have everybody and attorney generals…”

What does this mean? I see three possibilities.

(1) Trump will try to send law enforcement to the polls. Trump has no authority over local law enforcement such as sheriffs, so as commander in chief he cannot be ordering local law enforcement officials to be poll watchers. And while federal officials from the Department of Justice have been sent as observers to prevent voter intimidation, they’ve never been sent in a supposed effort to root out voter fraud. I suppose a governor might invite Trump to send troops to help in polling places, but that would be quite a provocative move.

(2) The Trump campaign/RNC use off-duty law enforcement to intimidate voters at the polls. If law enforcement is not in an official capacity, perhaps Trump is planning to send off-duty police officers as” poll watchers.” The consent decree is expired, so that possibility is not off the table. But I expect what’s going to happen now is that there is going to be NEW litigation, against the Trump campaign and the RNC, seeking to stop activities that may intimidate voters and that serve no antifraud purpose. Having party observers at the polls is generally a good thing to keep things fair and transparent; but uniformed police are not good for this purpse.

(3) It’s a voter suppressive head fake. Perhaps Trump is going to do nothing, and that the real end game is to deter people from voting out of fear the polling places are going to be a mess. This seems to be akin to Trump’s strategy of warning about mail in voting to deter turnout. After all, Trump (and Roger Stone via “Stop the Steal”) promised a bunch of “poll watchers” who never materialized. it’s not clear if they never materialized because this was just an effort to collect email addresses and fundraise or they couldn’t get their act together. But just talking about voter suppression can serve a political purpose for Trump.

Stay tuned. We’ll be hearing a lot more about this one.


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