More than 30 years ago, a Republican Party program that dispatched off-duty police officers to patrol polling places in heavily Black and Latino neighborhoods in New Jersey triggered accusations of voter intimidation, resulting in a federal agreement that restricted for decades how the national GOP could observe voting.
In an interview Thursday with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump described law enforcement officers as part of a phalanx of authorities he hopes will monitor voting in November.
“We’re going to have everything,” the president said. “We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement, and we’re going to hopefully have U.S. attorneys and we’re going to have everybody, and attorney generals. But it’s very hard.”
Trump’s remarks are part of a pattern of comments in which he has suggested he is willing to take actions to impede how people cast their ballots this fall. He has repeatedly sought to undermine confidence in the November vote, making false claims about the integrity of mail-in balloting and raising the specter of widespread electoral fraud. Earlier this month, he floated the idea of withholding election money from states and refusing funding for the U.S. Postal Service so as to curtail the use of voting by mail.
The president has limited authority to order law enforcement to patrol polling places. Sheriff’s deputies and police officers are commanded at the local level, and a federal law bars U.S. government officials from sending “armed men” to the vicinity of polling places.
But civil rights advocates said they feared Trump’s words could inspire local officials to act on his behalf. And they said even the threat of encountering police officers at the polls could be frightening to some voters, particularly in communities of color where residents are distrustful of the police.
“This is just such an old, dirty voter suppression tactic,” said Kristen Clarke, who leads the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “There is no doubt that this is about instilling fear and depressing participation in communities of color.”
Clarke said her group was researching how the president’s comments could be used in lawsuits intended to protect the vote.
Attorney Marc Elias, who is leading the Democratic Party’s voting litigation efforts, said he will rush to court if he sees any evidence of the actions Trump described.
“The reason why the Republican Party was under a consent decree for 40 years was for precisely this kind of behavior in 1981,” he said. “It would be unfortunate if, having come out from under that consent decree, they now try to repeat those tactics.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on Trump’s remarks.
Mike Reed, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said that law enforcement officers are not part of the RNC’s new poll-watching program. “Our program consists of volunteers and attorneys,” he said.
Other Republican officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal strategy said they were unaware of plans to deploy law enforcement officers to polling places, adding that the president’s comments were inaccurate and unhelpful to the party’s efforts to expand its poll-watching program through appropriate and legal measures.
Matthew Morgan, general counsel for Trump’s reelection campaign, said in a statement that “Republicans will be ready to make sure the polls are being run correctly, securely, and transparently as we work to deliver the free and fair election Americans deserve.”
The Voting Rights Act outlaws the intimidation or coercion of voters, a provision adopted to combat long-standing tactics that were used in the Jim Crow South to prevent Black people from participating in elections. The tactics included deploying sheriff’s deputies and police officers to the polls.
Accusations of voter intimidation continued long past the end of Jim Crow. Black voters in Florida complained about police traffic stops on Election Day as recently as 2000, according to a report on the 2000 presidential election by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 2010, advocates accused North Carolina police of voter suppression after they set up traffic checkpoints between primarily Black apartment complexes and polling locations.
The RNC came under scrutiny for allegedly violating the Voting Rights Act in New Jersey’s 1981 gubernatorial race, when the party was accused of creating a “National Ballot Security Task Force” made up of off-duty deputy sheriffs and local police officers who wore armbands and patrolled the polls in largely Black and Latino neighborhoods. Some allegedly displayed their firearms. Official-looking signs were posted at some precincts warning that voter fraud is a crime and that the task force was watching.
After the Democratic Party sued, the RNC entered into a federal consent decree in 1982 in which it admitted no wrongdoing but promised it would not take efforts to suppress the minority vote and would allow courts to review and approve future ballot security efforts.
In practice, that meant that for decades, the RNC largely ceded poll-watching activities to a candidate’s campaign operations.
In 2016, the Democratic Party alleged that the RNC had violated the consent decree by supporting the Trump campaign’s ballot security efforts.
But a federal judge ruled in 2018 that the Democrats had not proved that the agreement had been violated, allowing the consent decree to expire.
As a result, the RNC this year will be able to conduct poll-watching activities without restrictions for the first time in decades.
In response, party officials have said they hope to recruit at least 30,000 poll watchers in 15 battleground states, part of a program that will also deploy lawyers around the country to fight Democrats in court over election laws and ballots.
Justin Riemer, the RNC’s chief counsel, said volunteers will be trained on local rules and on looking for potential voting problems or fraud. At times, he said, the ballot watchers may confront issues directly with poll workers or may call their problems in to a team of election lawyers back at state headquarters. He said volunteers also will be trained to observe local officials as they count mail-in votes.
Some GOP poll watchers will be stationed in communities that have traditionally seen long lines or other voting day problems, which Riemer acknowledged would be likely to include some Democratic-leaning urban polling sites with many voters of color.
“Where do you see those lines wrapped around the block on Election Day?” he said. “Those are the kinds of places we are going to be. There is usually something wrong.”
Riemer said other poll watchers would focus on GOP-leaning areas, where they can monitor who has not yet voted as the day progresses to help the party better target its get-out-the-vote efforts.
RNC officials say they have developed training programs for poll watchers, though they declined to provide details or copies of the materials.
The consent decree significantly hampered the party’s political activities for years, Riemer said, and, as a result, the RNC plans to be extremely careful not to run afoul of laws against intimidation.
“People here are so vigilant that we are not put under another consent decree,” he said. “Our volunteers will be beaten over the head that they need to be compliant with all applicable laws, and they need to be respectful and courteous when they are engaging in their operations.”
He added: “They are not there to stop people from voting. We want people to vote. If they don’t believe us, they don’t believe us. That’s the God’s honest truth.”
Such assertions are viewed with skepticism by voting rights activists, particularly since the RNC has amplified Trump’s unfounded claims that voting by mail could lead to rampant fraud.
Many activists think long lines are driven in part by GOP-backed efforts to limit early voting or reduce the number of polling sites.
They also note that Republicans have said that they are open to recruiting former military service members and law enforcement officers as poll watchers — a proposal not far removed from the president’s suggestion to send sheriffs to the polls.
“We would be foolish not to be vigilant,” said Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, noting the country’s history of voter intimidation and the president’s misleading rhetoric.
Gupta, who is president of the nonprofit Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said she expected that Trump would threaten to deploy law enforcement officials to the polls.
“The danger is whether the threat alone or the posturing dissuades voters,” she said. “That’s where voters really need to be empowered and educated — the best way to fight back is to do the opposite and register and vote.”
Still, she noted that the country has “long-standing laws” prohibiting law enforcement intimidation of voters. Several states have their own statutes severely restricting police activity near polls.
But in the current fraught political atmosphere, the president’s call for a robust poll-watching effort could lead to unpredictable results.
Earlier this year, a conservative organization called True the Vote was recruiting former members of the military to go to polling places, according to Ed Hiner, a retired Navy SEAL who said he started the group’s “Continue to Serve” program.
Hiner said in an interview that he used the email lists from veterans associations to invite 2 million former military personnel to participate. He said he thought the program would be a bipartisan effort that would pair Democratic and Republican veterans to encourage voting, and stopped working with the group this summer after realizing how partisan the issues related to voting have become.
A representative of True the Vote, which alleges on its website that “radicalized leftist organizations are hard at work exploiting the weaknesses of our elector process,” did not respond to questions about the program’s status.
According to guidelines distributed by the Justice Department, the states — rather than the federal government — are to ensure the voting process is conducted fairly. The guidelines instruct federal prosecutors to minimize their public presence around elections, even if they suspect crimes, such as voter fraud, are occurring.
In a 2017 election crimes guide, the department stated that prosecutors and the FBI need approval before they can take any action that requires “intrusion by federal investigators into the area immediately surrounding an open polling place.”
Because federal law also does not allow federal officials to station “armed men” in the vicinity of polling places, the Justice Department has determined that this means a U.S. attorney cannot order FBI agents or U.S. marshals to the polls.
The Justice Department does, however, deploy unarmed, specially trained observers and poll monitors — though the number of those people has declined because of a 2013 Supreme Court decision limiting the federal government’s role inside polling places on Election Day.
“Law enforcement’s first obligation around elections is to do no harm,” Elias said. “So there is an appropriate role of law enforcement to ensure other people’s conduct isn’t preventing people from voting. It is not to engage in conduct themselves that could prevent people from voting.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many years it has been since the Republican Party was accused of voter intimidation in New Jersey. It was more than 30 years ago, not nearly 30 years ago. This story has been updated.
Amy Gardner contributed to this report.