During a presidential year, Election Day is always a little crazy, with millions of people heading to polls that are staffed by volunteers with limited training. Problems inevitably arise, delays stretch out, campaigns accuse each other of dirty tricks, and some people get denied their right to vote. To one degree or another, it happens every time.

But Election Day 2020 is going to be more challenging than ever. And President Trump is trying to make sure the whole thing devolves into chaos.

On Thursday night, the president called into his friend Sean Hannity’s Fox News program and had this exchange:

Hannity: Are you going to have poll watchers? Are you going to have an ability to monitor to avoid fraud and crosscheck whether or not these are registered voters, whether or not there’s been identification to know that it’s a real vote from a real American?
Trump: We’re going to have everything. We’re going to have sheriffs and we’re going to have law enforcement and we’re going to have hopefully U.S. attorneys. And we’re going to have everybody and attorney generals. But it’s very hard.

On a purely factual basis, Trump is utterly full of it; the president has no authority to send law enforcement personnel to polling places, despite his authoritarian impulses.

But as Wendy R. Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me, “If the objective is intimidation, making people worry that there are going to be police officers at their polling place accomplishes that almost as much as actually sending police officers to their polling place.”

Even if Trump can’t take official action to disrupt voting on Election Day, his campaign is still mounting a voter-intimidation effort focused on polling places. While much of our attention has been justifiably focused on the president’s efforts to sabotage voting-by-mail voting, his campaign is going to do everything it can to make sure Election Day itself is a nightmare.

Let’s begin with the context. The Republican Party has a long and sordid history of voter intimidation, particularly targeted at Black and Latino voters, which has involved things such as sending letters to voters threatening that if they voted at the wrong precinct they could be prosecuted. Most notably, they would send armed off-duty law enforcement officers to polling places in minority neighborhoods to discourage people from voting by standing around looking menacing and challenging voters to show proof they were allowed to vote.

In 1982, the Republican National Committee was forced to enter a consent decree promising to end these activities and submit their “ballot security” efforts to scrutiny by the courts. It was extended multiple times over the years in the face of evidence that they continued to engage in voter intimidation. But in 2018, the consent decree expired.

Thus liberated, the RNC and the Trump campaign are preparing a massive voter-intimidation effort. “It’s going to be a much bigger program, much more aggressive program, a better funded program,” Trump campaign lawyer Justin Clark told a gathering of Republican lawyers last year, as Andy Kroll of Rolling Stone reported. Trump “believes in it, and he will do whatever it takes to make sure it’s successful.”

To that end, the Trump campaign is trying to recruit an army of 50,000 poll watchers, whose job it will be to combat “fraud” — which, you can be sure, will mean focusing on minority neighborhoods.

The effort is not restricted to the campaign itself. In April, the Intercept reported on a meeting of conservative operatives during which they discussed recruiting military veterans and off-duty law enforcement to go into “inner city” precincts to stop alleged voter fraud.

We should be clear that both parties employ poll watchers, who can do legitimate things like help voters understand voting procedures. But Republican poll watching has always been, in significant part, about both intimidating voters and gumming up the works.

If a poll watcher challenges a voter’s credentials, it means that voter may be pulled aside while a poll worker — who would otherwise be occupied moving voters through — has to verify their identity and eligibility. Do that again and again, and the lines grow longer and longer.

We already know that people in minority neighborhoods have to wait longer to vote. After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Republican-run states in the South responded by drastically reducing the number of polling places, particularly in minority neighborhoods. Fewer polling places means longer lines; throw in a bunch of Republican poll watchers challenging voter after voter, and you may find many people just deciding to go home rather than wait for hours.

And because of the coronavirus pandemic, it could be particularly bad this year. “Any disruptions can be checked at the polls, it’s just a lot more to put on already strained election administrators,” Weiser said.

During the primaries, many poll workers — who are often elderly retirees volunteering their time — couldn’t or wouldn’t work for fear of contracting the virus. “We’re going to have a whole new crop of poll workers,” Weiser continued, adding that "to have to contend with people trying to interfere in the process is going to be a problem.”

To make matters worse, the pandemic has required states and localities to spend more to make sure the polling places are safe, at a time when their budgets are strapped. “This is a massive logistical challenge that is being met with almost no resources,” Weiser said.

If you watched the Democratic convention, you heard one speaker after another urge people to vote, whether it’s by mail or at the polls. “They’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote does not matter,” former president Barack Obama said on Wednesday. “That is how they win.”

Trump certainly agrees. But Weiser stressed that voter intimidation can’t work if voters refuse to let it: “People need to not be intimidated, because the law is on the voter’s side.”

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