The Democratic National Committee filed a motion Wednesday calling on a federal judge to hold the Republican National Committee in contempt for violating a long-standing consent decree barring it from intimidating voters at the polls via so-called “ballot security” measures—namely poll watchers using the excuse of looking out for voter fraud.
The motion stated that Donald Trump has himself broken the consent decree in public statements that critics have labeled “incitement.” And it asked the judge to block the RNC from coordinating with the Trump campaign.
Trump’s call for vigilante watchers is focused on polling sites in neighborhoods where people of color make up most of the residents. That tactic echoes what led to the consent decree in the first place. My colleague Mark Sumner has pointed out how potentially dangerous some of these vigilantes could be.
The decree was agreed to in 1982 after armed poll watchers—many of them off-duty law enforcement officers—showed up at New Jersey polling stations in minority neighborhoods during the gubernatorial election of 1981 wearing armbands saying “Ballot Security Task Force.” They directly challenged voters and otherwise intimidated them. The decree has since been renewed but is slated to expire next year.
In part, the Democratic court filing states:
Defendant Republican National Committee (“RNC”) has violated the Final Consent Decree.. by supporting and enabling the efforts of the Republican candidate for President, Donald J. Trump, as well as his campaign and advisors, to intimidate and discourage minority voters from voting in the 2016 Presidential Election. Trump has falsely and repeatedly told his supporters that the November 8 election will be “rigged” based upon fabricated claims of voter fraud in “certain areas” or “certain sections” of key states. Unsurprisingly, those “certain areas” are exclusively communities in which large minority voting populations reside. Notwithstanding that no evidence of such fraud actually exists, Trump has encouraged his supporters to do whatever it takes to stop it—“You’ve got to get everybody to go out and watch . . . and when [I] say ‘watch,’ you know what I’m talking about, right?”—and has been actively organizing “election observers” to monitor polling stations in “certain areas.” Trump has even encouraged his “watchers” to act like vigilante law enforcement officers.
The judge assigned to the case, John Michael Vazquez, is an Obama appointee.
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As reported by The Wall Street Journal a week ago, publicly at least the RNC is not happy. They fear Trump’s call for fear the consent decree may be extended again, this time until 2025:
RNC general counsel John Ryder wrote to members on Wednesday [Oct. 19] to “remind you of the restrictions placed on the RNC by the consent decree.” […]
“You are encouraged not to engage in ‘ballot security’ activities even in your personal, state party or campaign capacity. If you elect to do so, please be aware that the RNC in no way sanctions your activity,” Mr. Ryder wrote.
Sounds good. But it’s a bit awkward when the Republican nominee himself is clearly sanctioning the proscribed activity. Neither Ryder nor anyone else from the RNC returned a phone call from Daily Kos asking if he had also written to Trump saying the committee “in no way sanctions your activity.”
The DNC attorney who wrote the court motion, Angela Genova, added more kindling:
Genova quotes Trump running mate Mike Pence as saying at a town hall that the campaign and RNC “are working very very closely with state governments and secretaries of states all over the country to ensure ballot integrity,” and quoted a reporter recounting a conversation with Trump’s campaign manager in which she said said the campaign is “actively working with the national committee, the official party, and campaign lawyers to monitor precincts around the country.”
Rick Hasen, who runs the highly respected Election Law Blog, wrote last week that it might be too late for the RNC to get off the hook for Trump’s efforts.
The Brennan Center for Justice issued a fact sheet in August that’s worth the time of anyone wondering how legitimate poll watchers should conduct themselves. Authors Wendy R. Weiser and Adam Gitlin explain in their introduction to The Dangers of “Ballot Security” Operations and Voter Intimidation:
Every eligible citizen has the right to vote free of intimidation and discrimination — regardless of political affiliation, race, disability, sexual orientation, or gender. Deploying non-official, private actors to challenge voters’ eligibility can lead to illegal intimidation, discrimination, or disruptions, and undermine confidence in our election system. This analysis outlines the threat, explains what is and is not allowed under the law, and highlights what can be done to protect against harmful activity in November.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has posted information on how partisan poll watchers are supposed to conduct themselves, noting that each state has its own regulations in the matter. They point out that 41 states have a formal accreditation or appointment process for watchers and challengers. The rules for nonpartisan observers are less specific.