So, let us be clear: On at least two occasions, Trump has summoned his coalition of overwhelmingly white, disaffected voters — Americans who, in their own words and in reputable public opinion polls have told us, repeatedly, that they harbor unusually elevated rates of racial resentment — to show up at the nation's polls on Election Day for reasons other than voting.
Should Trump supporters answer, en masse, an overwhelmingly white group of usually angry and racially resentful people, primed to distrust and question the voting eligibility of others, will surely create tensions.
Trump made his first call in nearly all white and heavily working-class Altoona, median income $36,258. He told those listening that they could accomplish the task he's given them by monitoring "certain places," summoning law enforcement and really watching. (On Saturday, it was "certain areas.") More than one campaign observer has since described the "certain places" of which Trump spoke to be Pennsylvania's major cities where Democrats — many of them black and Latino voters — are clustered. Those places include Philadelphia, where whites are not the majority.
(In 2012, rumors abounded that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney received no votes in Philadelphia, launching a thousand theories about voter fraud. PolitiFact has debunked this claim repeatedly. In reality, Romney received no votes in 59 of the city's 1,687 voting divisions.)
Then Trump's campaign staff extended the call online to Trump supporters across the country, posting a sign-up form for those who want to volunteer as a "Trump Election Observer" on the campaign website. Trump followed all of this Saturday with another call for voting monitors in Manheim, a township that is more than 84 percent white.
Back in August, when The Fix contacted Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the New York University School of Law Brennan Center for Justice, to ask about Trump's call for volunteer action, here's some of what Weiser said:
I would say that it raised concerns. It is a red flag because of our long history of discrimination and intimidation in polling place monitoring operations and because of the strong emotions in play in a presidential race and this presidential race in particular.There is a real and serious risk that those kinds of operations will go awry and begin discriminating against or intimidating voters regardless of what their intent is.So, I would say that this call, Trump's call, is a call to action for our nation's election officials. We have laws in place to prevent voter intimidation and discrimination. Now is the time to be sure that election officials and poll workers ... confront poll monitors or voters who behave in ways on Election Day which are problematic or impermissible.
There really are only a few ways to read what Trump and his team are trying to pull together. Here's why.
Federal law bans states from engaging in systematic efforts to declare voters ineligible to participate 90 days before a federal election, Weiser explained. State law in Texas, Alabama and Ohio does not allow individual citizens to challenge the right of others to vote at a polling site. And many voter challenge laws that do exist were created just after Reconstruction. They created a legal means by which to keep voters of color out of the election process.
Now for some real talk here abut 2016. For those who are wedded to the idea that what divides America is class, not race or even political ideology, it's important to note that that's not how election monitoring and attempts to render voters ineligible in the United States tend to most often work.
The Fix is aware that people of all races and ethnicities who are religiously unaffiliated, women with graduate degrees, Jews and white millennials are also far more likely to be Democrats, with clear plans to vote against Trump. So yes, in theory, Trump's poll watchers might want to monitor closely anyone who does not have a Trump bumper sticker on their car.
What these poll watchers will have in many states is a finite period of time — seconds, really — to decide whom to challenge. Given the reality captured in the chart below and what has already happened in this campaign, it seems far more than likely that challenges will be largely appearance-based.
The other alternative would be an organized campaign effort that pulls from a grab bag of dirty tricks so frequently used by the Republican Party or its agents that the party is subject to an existing 1981 court order prohibiting this sort of thing until at least 2017.
In the grab bag: Send mail to foreclosed homes falsely advising occupants who remain that they must provide proof of voter eligibility before Election Day, challenge anyone from these addresses who shows up to vote, or making a challenge list based on mail to foreclosed homes that was returned (used in different forms and different places in 1997, 2008 and 2012); purging voters from the rolls due to small differences in the way they listed their names on voter registration and state ID forms, such as listed or absent middle names; or remove voters with common names shared with people who are disenfranchised felons (used in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012).
Also in there: Send mail to U.S. citizens falsely ordering them to provide proof of citizenship to election officials before Election Day, during specific hours, or they could face criminal charges for an attempt at voting (used in 2012); announce plans or actually center efforts to challenge voters in overwhelmingly black or Latino voter precincts (used in 2004, 2010 and 2012); send out notices targeted at overwhelmingly black and Latino precincts or voters demanding proof of voter eligibility with the aid of local law enforcement (used in 2016); send notices to residents indicating that they cannot vote in a particular district if they have not lived in that district for 30 days or more (used in 1990).
Trump knows what a win in Pennsylvania could provide: a whopping 20 electoral college votes. (Each candidate needs 270 to win.) But he also knows that no Republican presidential nominee has won Pennsylvania since 1988.
It seems now Trump may have convinced himself that his campaign needs something more than votes to turn that around.
CLARIFICATION: This post has been altered to clarify the difference between rumors about Mitt Romney's performance in the 2012 presidential race in Philadelphia and actual election returns.