In a flurry of legal filings this week, the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee battled in federal court over the Democrats’ claim that the GOP is violating a decades-old consent decree by coordinating the placement of “poll watchers” at voting stations for the presidential election.
On Wednesday, Federal Judge John Michael Vasquez, of the US District Court for the District of New Jersey ordered the Republican National Committee to produce additional evidence in the form of sworn statements from senior executives that it is not coordinating with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign to organize poll watchers.
The Trump campaign is allowed to organize poll watchers, but the RNC is barred from doing so through 2017, the result of a lawsuit brought by the Democratic Party alleging that the RNC was using aggressive techniques to intimidate minority voters. The RNC denied wrongdoing, but accepted a decades-long ban.
RNC officials have called the Democrats’ lawsuit “completely meritless,” but the issue of poll watching has taken on increased importance in this election because of Trump’s insistence -- absent any evidence -- that the process is being “rigged” against him. He has encouraged supporters to travel to the polls to watch for specific activity. Some have expressed plans to take actions that are plainly illegal.
(It is important to note that representatives of organized political parties are allowed to act as poll watchers in federal elections, but they must be registered beforehand and face many restrictions on what they are allowed to do. Trump’s call for people to simply show up at precincts to observe has been widely criticized by election law experts who point out that they would not be allowed into the polling station, and that they could be arrested if they harass voters outside the polling station.)
The impression that the RNC was coordinating with the Trump campaign was strengthened by both Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence and Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, both of whom made public statements saying that the campaign was coordinating with the RNC on unspecified “ballot security” measures.
In a filing on Wednesday, the RNC testified that in interviews with RNC General Counsel John R. Phillippe Jr., both Pence and Conway conceded that they had been mistaken.
“Governor Pence confirmed that he made the statement based on his incorrect assumptions, and that he has had no contact with the RNC about any ballot integrity program and has no basis to believe that the RNC is working with the Trump campaign on such efforts,” it read.
“Mr. Phillippe also spoke by telephone with the Trump campaign’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway. She confirmed that she retracted the statement cited by the DNC in its motion and that she ‘has no knowledge of, and knows of no facts indicating, the RNC’s involvement in any poll monitoring activities in any state.’”
The order from Judge Vasquez came as the Democrats produced sworn affidavits from some of their own poll watchers testifying that they had encountered Republican poll watchers providing misinformation to voters and claiming to be working on orders from the RNC.
One woman, Irasema Garza, said that at a polling station in Nevada, she encountered a Republican poll watcher who informed her that although she was with the Trump campaign “it’s the RNC that’s really running this program.”
The RNC denies this is the case, and the stakes are high. If it is found in violation of the consent decree, the RNC could be barred from organizing poll watchers for an additional eight years.