President Donald Trump urged his supporters during the first presidential debate on Tuesday to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” for potential election issues, leading some Democrats and election experts to sound the alarm against possible voter intimidation.
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that's what has to happen. I am urging them to do it,” Trump said toward the end of the debate against Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee.
“Today there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing,” he said. “They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia.”
A Philadelphia Inquirer reporter at a Board of Elections satellite office said Tuesday that a woman who said she was hired by the Trump campaign as a poll watcher wasn't allowed into the office.
But that's because the poll watchers weren't approved to be at that particular location.
A spokesman for the city commissioner's office said satellite voting offices don't qualify as voting places, so poll watchers can't be given poll watcher certificates to allow them to observe the process.
“Poll watcher certificates have not been issued for any individuals for anything other than poll watching activities on Election Day at Polling Places,” the office said in a statement.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” that Trump was “intimidating people.”
“That is really an argument for people to vote by mail, vote early, vote by mail,” she said. “Don't be intimidated by going to the polling places and see people who look like ICE agents or law enforcement or something.”
Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford tweeted Wednesday night that Trump was not talking about poll watching, he was talking about “voter intimidation.”
“Voter intimidation is illegal in Nevada. Believe me when I say it: You do it, and you will be prosecuted,” he added.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring issued a statement Wednesday calling Trump’s rhetoric “dangerous."
“The President is blatantly urging his supporters to congregate at polling places, go inside, and ostensibly harass and intimidate voters,” he said. “While there are authorized ‘poll watchers’ who monitor polls on Election Day, their duties are clearly laid out, and they do not include what President Trump has suggested.”
Each state has its laws regarding poll watchers, who are appointed in advance and whose primary role is to ensure that each party has a fair chance of winning an election.
But voter intimidation or interfering in the election process itself is illegal, apart from reporting potential issues to authorities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks poll-watching laws.
Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s voting rights and elections program, said there are many state laws that govern who can be in the polls at any given time, who can be a poll watcher and what role they play.
“There are laws like this in many states. Regular citizens can’t just take it upon themselves to engage in this kind of poll watching and for good reason because it opens up the possibility of voter intimidation, of vigilantism, which the president is seemingly encouraging,” he said. “But it is illegal.”
“I regret to have to say this, but I think the president's comments last night elevate the risk of problematic events occurring around the voting process,” said Edward Foley, an NBC News election law analyst and law professor at Ohio State University.
Foley said there had been concerns in various law circles, both this year and in 2016, about the risk of increased violence surrounding voting in the United States. The good news in 2016 was those concerns did not materialize and thus far there had not been major incidents with early voting this year, he said.
But Foley did refer to an incident this month where a group of Trump supporters disrupted a day of early voting in Virginia as voters entered a polling location. Some voters and polling staff felt intimidated by what they saw, according to The New York Times.
Following the incident, Herring issued a statement saying: “Voting is a fundamental right and the bedrock of our democracy. No Virginian should ever feel intimidated or afraid while exercising their duty as an American and casting their vote.”
The Republican Party entered into a consent decree after allegations of voter intimidation by poll watchers at predominantly Black and Latino communities during the governor's race in New Jersey in 1981. After the Democratic National Committee filed a federal lawsuit against the Republican National Committee, a federal court put a consent decree into effect that subjected the Republican Party to reviews of its proposed poll-monitoring efforts, Morales-Doyle said.
But that consent decree expired in 2017, “so this is the first presidential election that we’ve had without that monitoring in place,” he said.
The RNC announced months ago that it planned to recruit up to 50,000 poll watchers this year to watch for voting irregularities. Trump has often spoken of concerns of mass voter fraud leading up to the election, despite election experts saying it is incredibly rare.
“We need every able-bodied man, woman to join Army for Trump's election security operation at defendyourballot.com,” Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, said in a recent ad posted to social media. “We need you to help us watch them. Not just on Election Day, but also during early voting and at the counting boards.”
Morales-Doyle said the president's comments were also concerning because they could lead others to fear showing up to the polls.
"He’s giving people reason to fear showing up to vote, and it's fear that’s going to be felt by certain people more than others," he said. "There’s a history in this country of people engaging in violence to prevent people of color, Black people in particular, from voting."