Trump Redefines Role of Election Observers

Donald Trump has made many terrifying and outrageous claims throughout his candidacy, yet none have struck a nerve with me more than his accusation that the election is rigged. While I think that it’s possible for election observers to have undue influence over elections in the United States, I find Trump’s claims about cheating incredibly over-the-top. Like many aspects of American governance that differ from the rest of the world, our election system is incredibly decentralized. Americans seeking to successfully rig our election would need the compliance of an unimaginable number of officials, an outlandish scheme that’s bound to fail.

Trump has called for his supporters to take advantage of state laws that allow them to observe polling places and challenge the eligibility of voters. Election observers have a place in our democracy, but they do not exist for the reasons that Trump suggests. I say this as someone who has twice served as an observer at polls for nonpartisan campaigns in my hometown. My job as an observer was to identify who among the campaign’s supporters was voting; whenever residents came to my polling place to vote, I would check to see if their names appeared on my list of supporters. This is how normal campaigns use observers. If you’ve ever gotten a call reminding you to vote on Election Day, chances are that an election observer for a campaign did not check you off as having voted.

Obviously I was not in the business of intimidating, challenging and impeding voters as an observer. I had never heard of private citizens actually challenging the eligibility of voters until Trump planted that idea in our heads. In recent memory, our electoral system has relied on election officials to conduct investigations into cases of voter fraud. Public challenges to the eligibility of potential voters have not been advocated by major candidates for public office since the Jim Crow era.

Trump’s call for his supporters to observe elections in their local municipalities has already led to incidents of voter intimidation by Trump supporters. According to a lawsuit filed in Clark County, Nevada, “…A Trump supporter harassed and intimidated multiple voters.” A possibly even more disturbing threat came from Steve Webb, a Trump supporter from Fairfield, Ohio, who told The Boston Globe that he was going to watch the polls and “look for…Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American.” To prevent these potential voters from gaining access to the polls, he boasted that “I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see that they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”

Contrary to his claims, Webb’s intended actions are completely illegal. All states have laws on the books that limit political activity within a certain radius of a polling place. These laws give voters enough space to avoid dealing directly with political campaigns. While campaign workers can observe polls, they should not be allowed near voters or express their political views in any way. Despite these rules, I have heard of people voicing plans similar to those of Webb. Were Webb to carry out his plans, I hope that poll workers would quickly ask him to leave and call the police if necessary.

Trump’s call for unofficial election observers to police the polls for nonexistent fraud coincides with the Justice Department’s decision to send far fewer of its election observers to areas with a history of racial discrimination in elections. The Justice Department, seeking to uphold the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County vs. Holder three years ago, must restrict their use of election observers. Due to separate court orders, however, observers will still be sent to seven counties in Alaska, California, Louisiana and New York, a pittance compared to previous elections. The Justice Department is also sending a small number of election monitors to twenty-five states, but these individuals cannot enter polling places without permission of local governments. Ultimately the Justice Department has lost influence over our election procedures, while Trump has gained power amidst this chaos.

I can accept that unnecessary interference and fraud has occurred and will occur in the presidential election process. On Election Day in 2012, for example, a widely watched YouTube video showed an electronic voting machine in Pennsylvania selecting Mitt Romney whenever a voter pressed the button indicating his preference for Barack Obama. However, these are isolated incidents. Except in the case of a close race, such as the 2000 presidential election Bush v. Gore, these few incidents will have little impact on the outcome of national elections.

The same cannot be said of state and local elections, the results of which are decided by far fewer people than national elections. As a young voter, I already recognize that it’s much more important to vote in these local elections than in the presidential election since their results have a direct impact on me, and I have more control over their outcome. Trump supporters able to successfully scare minorities from voting will thus prompt more policy changes at local level than within the federal government; lack of turnout by minority groups in local elections easily creates racial disparities in local governance.

A New York Times Magazine piece in December 2015 used the city of Pasadena, Texas as an example of the effect that low Hispanic turnout throughout that state has on the outcome of elections. When the Pasadena city council risked losing its white majority due to the city’s growing Hispanic population, it voted to reduce council seats from eight to six while adding two at-large seats to be filled by the entire city rather than districts. In the past, the Justice Department would have blocked such an action; because of the Shelby v. Holder decision, however, the Justice Department no longer has the authority to override the city council’s decision. White politicians filled these at-large seats. District-wide voting may have led to a city council reflective of the city’s racial composition.

Ultimately, we need to encourage people to vote and make sure that Americans have the right to vote unimpeded. Perhaps citizens should in fact follow Trump’s lead and begin watching our polls to make sure that elections are conducted fairly. The rise of poll watchers wishing to do harm to the electoral process and the loss of the Justice Department’s monitoring powers means that we as citizens need to advocate for voters’ rights. We no longer can defend our right to vote merely by electing a certain candidate; we must vote and take action to ensure that our fellow citizens may practice this right without fear of intimidation. •