Trump’s ‘Rigged Election’ Poll Watchers Could End Up in Jail
Policy + Politics

Trump’s ‘Rigged Election’ Poll Watchers Could End Up in Jail

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has spent much of the last several days cementing in the minds of his supporters the idea that the presidential election on November 8 is on the verge of being stolen from him by a “rigged” system. He’s encouraged his supporters to turn out at polling sites where they suspect election fraud might take place in order to fight back against the shadowy cabal he insists stands between him and the White House.

In a widely read story published by the Boston Globe on Saturday, one Trump supporter said he planned to do just that.

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“Trump said to watch your precincts. I’m going to go, for sure,” Steve Webb told reporters Matt Viser and Tracy Jan. “I’ll look for . . . well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American.... I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”

The problem is that pretty much everything Webb describes there is completely illegal.

“If they show up to do this, his folks are going to be very upset and very disappointed, and frankly I think maybe that’s what he wants,” said attorney Chris Ashby, who has made a career out of representing Republican candidates in election disputes.

“If they hinder, interfere, intimidate, or harass voters in any way they have crossed a line and they are committing a crime,” he said in an interview. “If they are in any way menacing or threatening they are going to find themselves in a conversation with law enforcement very quickly.”

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And there won’t be a whole lot of room for volunteer Trump supporters to argue their case. Local election officials have significant discretion to determine what sort of activity is acceptable at polling stations.

While there will be certified Democratic and Republican poll watchers at many, if not most, election sites in November, there is literally no place at all for self-appointed representatives of a specific candidate to show up and demand “accountability” from prospective voters.

“They certainly cannot go inside the polling place,” Ashby said. “State laws vary widely, but most state laws require some qualification to enter the polling place except as a voter.”

In general, he said, poll watchers “have to be appointed ahead of time, and they have to have a credential. They can’t communicate with voters in any way. And they can’t get between voters and anything.”

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There are a few states that will allow any person to enter a polling place, he said, but they will be “railed off into an observation area.”

For Ashby, the story in the Globe was the catalyst for a lengthy series of Twitter posts, about the resilience and integrity of the US election system, later consolidated into a Medium post.

Despite tepid pushback from members of his own party, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and to an even lesser degree his own vice presidential running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Donald Trump spent most of the weekend raging on Twitter and in public appearances that the presidential election on November 8 will be “rigged.”

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On Sunday, even as his own surrogates tried to claim that Trump was referring only to the election being rigged by the media and some vague “establishment,” the candidate himself clarified on Twitter that he means something different: that he believes the election is going to be stolen from him at individual polling stations.

Ashby dealt with this claim, too in his storm of Tweets on Saturday.

“Republican leaders and lawyers should speak out against this fantastical nonsense,” he wrote. “In addition to undermining public faith & confidence in our electoral system, which is foundational to the legitimacy of our government, it is undermining legitimate efforts to recruit & train watchers to observe this elex to ensure that it is free, open, fair and honest.”