Republicans are recruiting an estimated 50,000 volunteers to act as "poll watchers" in November, part of a multimillion-dollar effort to police who votes and how.
That effort, coordinated by the Republican National Committee and President Donald Trump's re-election campaign, includes a $20 million fund for legal battles as well as the GOP's first national poll-patrol operation in nearly 40 years.
While poll watching is an ordinary part of elections — both parties do it — voting rights advocates worry that such a moneyed, large-scale offensive by the Republicans will intimidate and target minority voters who tend to vote Democratic and chill turnout in a pivotal contest already upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
Some states allow poll monitors to challenge a voter's eligibility, requiring that person's ballot undergo additional vetting to be counted. In Michigan, for example, a challenged voter will be removed from line and questioned about their citizenship, age, residency and date of voter registration if, according to election rules, a vote challenger has "good reason" to believe they are not eligible. They are required to take an oath attesting that their answers are true and are given a special ballot.
The Trump campaign says the aim is to prevent voter fraud before it happens, despite researchers, academics and the president's own voter fraud commission all failing to find evidence that widespread fraud exists in years of searching.
The poll-watch operation is part of a "voter suppression war machine," said Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams. Abrams lost her 2018 bid for governor in Georgia in a tight race clouded by allegations of voter suppression that drew national attention to issues of ballot access.
Groh-Wargo said the full "machine" includes everything from Trump's rhetoric on voter fraud to Republican-led state legislatures passing laws that may make voting more difficult for certain groups, as well as spending taxpayer dollars looking for the voter fraud the president and other Republicans claim occurs. Georgia, for example, established a voter fraud task force in April.
But a coordinated poll-watch effort, advocates warned, is particularly dangerous because of the GOP's history of using monitors to intimidate minority voters.
"We know that the targets of these actions, as we've seen in the past at our polls, are voters of color," said Barbara Arnwine, president and founder of Transformative Justice Coalition, in testimony to Congress in early June, in reference to the poll watchers.
While many states are working to expand mail voting to respond to the public health threat of the novel coronavirus, poll watchers can also monitor — and sometimes challenge — absentee ballots, too.
Freed from court restrictions, Trump team seizes 'new opportunity'
After the Democratic National Committee sued the RNC for allegedly sending armed, off-duty police officers to patrol the polls in minority neighborhoods in a 1981 election, a federal "consent decree" put in place a year later sharply curtailed the Republican Party's ability coordinate poll watchers by requiring prior judicial approval.
But that consent decree was allowed to expire at the end of 2017, and a judge in 2018 declined to extend it.
"What we haven't seen in a long time — in decades — is large-scale efforts to try to question and challenge voters' eligibility at the polls," said Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. "The reports and the announcements that the RNC has been making suggest that that is part of the program that they're trying to mount."
At a panel about "defeating the left's voter fraud machine" at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, Trump campaign senior counsel Justin Clark said the GOP had been hamstrung for decades by the legal ruling.
"For about 40 years, the Republican Party has been fighting this battle with one hand tied behind its back," he said. "In 2020, we have a brand-new opportunity to be able to activate an Election Day operation program that's really robust."
(Weiser noted the GOP wasn't barred from doing the work of poll watching — it was barred from doing it without getting court approval to ensure the efforts weren't discriminatory.)
Clark told the audience that the campaign and the party hoped to "leverage about 50,000 volunteers to be able to watch the polls" with the goal of preventing "systemic failures" and "malicious" fraud — people voting multiple times.
"Everybody in this country who wants to vote and is eligible to vote, should be able to vote — once," he said to a chuckling crowd.
Clark and the Trump campaign did not respond to requests for interviews.
History of intimidation and discrimination
"Lifting of the consent decree allows the RNC to play by the same rules as Democrats. Now the RNC can work more closely with state parties and campaigns to do what we do best — ensure that more people vote through our unmatched field program," RNC spokesperson Mandi Merritt told NBC News.
She also said the idea "that this is somehow a Republican suppression effort is completely bogus."
But voting rights advocates say conservative activists and Republicans have a worrisome history, such as the allegation that the RNC sent armed, off-duty police officers to patrol polls in minority neighborhoods. Additionally, the party posted signs warning that ''it is a crime to falsify a ballot or to violate election laws," according to contemporaneous news reports.
In 2004, Ohio Republicans citing fraud sent 3,500 poll watchers into polling locations with plans to challenge voters they deemed ineligible; a court ruling noted that the poll challengers in Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, were heavily concentrated in minority-majority polling places.
True the Vote, a group that grew out of the tea party movement in Texas and has ties to the conservative movement, was accused of intimidating voters with its poll-watching operation in 2010.
Groh-Wargo, whose group is partnering with Democratic state parties, said she had no doubt that GOP poll-watching efforts would have an effect.
"We fully expect that they're targeting all precincts that have students, Native Americans, Latinos, African Americans, refugee communities," she said, noting her group was seeking to counter the effort with voter hotlines and poll watchers of their own.
"It's completely unprecedented," she said, decrying it as a "burn it down, win at all costs, institutions be damned, they're gonna do whatever it takes" strategy.
Marc Elias, a top elections lawyer who frequently litigates on behalf of Democrats, said he expects the GOP's 2020 poll watchers will challenge individual ballots and voters — arguing that a signature doesn't match on an absentee ballot or using public records to allege a voter's registration is inaccurate or out of date.
"They're not going to sit idly by and ensure the lines move swiftly. They're recruiting these folks so they go to polls and either intimidate voters, or at a minimum slow the process," he said.
The pandemic raises the stakes even further.
"What we saw in Wisconsin during COVID shows how much worse it can get," Elias said, referring to hourslong lines that resulted from a reduced number of polling locations during the state's April presidential primary. Democrats, citing health concerns, had fought unsuccessfully to postpone the election.
Long lines will be made longer by cleaning protocols. High rates of absentee-ballot rejections will disenfranchise more people, while absentee-ballot systems will be tested by a surge of mail ballots, and already-tight budgets will be tested by printing and postage costs. New York officials recently pointed to a national envelope shortage as another unexpected issue.
Republicans have sparred with Democrats over additional election funding, because Democrats want mail voting to be an option for everyone. Trump, meanwhile, has falsely claimed that vote-by-mail is riddled with fraud and threatened to withhold federal funds from states that expand the option.
Trump, who lost the popular vote in 2016 by nearly 3 million votes, also said mail-in voting — a system election officials say and research has shown increases participation in elections — posed an existential threat to the GOP itself.
"MAIL-IN VOTING WILL LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE. IT WILL ALSO LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY," Trump tweeted.