DENVER — Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is asking supporters to become election monitors, warning voters Friday night that “cheating” might rob him of a win.
At the same time, outside groups are readying to help the campaign watch the polls. Donald F. McGahn II, the Trump campaign’s attorney, stopped by the Denver meeting of the Republican National Lawyers Association to plot the strategy and explain how the campaign could help the lawyers build a sophisticated election-protection network.
“What they want to do is create a pretty select, Navy SEAL-type operation that takes the data we’re able to provide and deploy resources of the highest caliber,” said Randy Evans, the chairman of the lawyers group, which he said does not coordinate its work with the campaign. “If you have 7,000 lawyers on the ground, and 200 sophisticated election attorneys on call, you can move quickly. The message was: This ain’t your father’s Cadillac.”
Trump, who has repeatedly speculated that the election might be “rigged” in favor of Democrat Hillary Clinton, is using that fear to recruit poll watchers. A form on the Trump campaign’s website asks voters to help Trump “stop crooked Hillary from rigging this election.”
Anyone who fills out the form is added to a list of people who will be used to staff as many polling places as possible. Monitors will report any irregularities they observe to the strike force of lawyers, who, according to Evans, would be able to judge what was and was not a problem.
“I hope you people can sort of not just vote on the eighth [but] go around and look and watch other polling places and make sure that it’s 100 percent fine,” Trump told supporters in Altoona, Pa., on Friday. “We’re going to watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study, make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.”
The effort reflects a key tension point between the parties, with Republicans warning of voter fraud designed to help Democrats, such as ineligible people casting ballots, and Democrats accusing GOP officials of exaggerating the dangers of voter fraud to justify new laws that Democrats say are designed to disenfranchise minorities and other Democratic voters. It has become commonplace for presidential campaigns to amass legal teams steeped in the intricacies of election law — but it is unusual for a candidate to so directly predict wrongdoing by an opponent.
In the past month, some conservatives have escalated their warnings about fraud as courts have struck down voter-ID laws in North Carolina, North Dakota and Wisconsin. The rulings were victories for Democrats and civil rights groups that few Republicans saw coming. A voter-ID law in Pennsylvania, which a leading Republican legislator there said could help the party finally win the state, was struck down in 2014 — and the election of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf that year effectively ended attempts to pass a new law.
While Trump has worried Republicans in recent weeks with a string of controversies, there was no such angst about his voter-fraud comments.
“I didn’t know this was coming, but I was glad to hear it,” said Rob Gleason, the chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, said a surge of Trump-inspired poll watchers would be welcome, so long as they undergo training after the state receives their names.
“We don’t want anyone getting unruly,” he said.
That is what worries Democrats and some election analysts. They say Trump’s talk of the “rigged” system has almost promised that poll-watching volunteers will see fraud. During Nevada’s GOP caucuses — run by the state party and thus lacking some of the controls of general elections — some Trump supporters showed up for election monitoring duty wearing campaign gear, panicking rival campaigns.
“It’s very common to have people at the polls,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert and professor at the University of California at Irvine’s School of Law. “What’s different is that he is couching it in an incendiary way by saying ‘crooked Hillary’ wants to steal the election. That seems to be an invitation to go and make trouble.”
The Trump campaign’s push for election monitors also comes at a time of weakness for independent poll watchers. A 2013 Supreme Court ruling limited the Department of Justice’s ability to deploy election observers with full access to polling places. Since the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act, Justice had sent hundreds of observers to states where tensions over elections seemed high. Now, observers may be sent only to five states where court rulings will allow election monitors. None of those states — Alabama, Alaska, California, Louisiana and New York — is seen as competitive in November.
“That helps a lot,” Evans said of the reduced Justice Department role. “It takes away the suggestion that the Democrat machine is being supplemented by government officials.”
For Democrats, the worry comes not from the specter of voter fraud, which is rare, but from Trump supporters intimidating legitimate voters. They have seen True the Vote, an outgrowth of the tea party movement, train poll watchers to challenge voters in every election since 2012, and preemptively challenge voters who listed commercial addresses or dormitories as their homes. In 2012, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) speculated that True the Vote was involved in “a criminal conspiracy to deny legitimate voters their constitutional rights,” a view that many Democrats still hold about election challenges.
John Fund, a conservative journalist and author of the book “Stealing Elections,” said he likens the problem to shoplifting. “If you put a camera in the store, and signs that warn shoplifters of the consequences, you cut down on the habit by thirty-forty percent,” he said. But, Fund added: “I just don’t think the evidence is there that a lot of monitors will be organized by what Trump said.”
The Trump campaign is eager to prove that wrong.
“They will help ensure lawful voters can vote,” said Trump spokesman Jason Miller. “Liberals love to throw out the voter-intimidation card. What we’re advocating are open, fair and honest elections.”
Jenna Johnson contributed reporting from Washington.