The recruiting video is clear about the Trump campaign’s need for poll watchers. “We all know that the Democrats will be up to their old dirty tricks on Election Day to make sure that President Trump doesn’t win. We cannot let that happen.”
President Donald Trump, who says the only way he can lose in November is if the election is “rigged,” has called for an “army” of 50,000 volunteers to monitor voting and ballot-counting nationwide.
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen,” he said at last month’s debate with former vice president Joe Biden.
Polling places in Missouri and Kansas will be under unprecedented scrutiny this year. That’s due both to Trump’s claims of widespread corruption and the expiration of a 37-year-old federal consent decree that limited the Republican National Committee’s ability to monitor Election Day proceedings.
Both the Trump and Biden campaigns and allied groups are lining up teams of observers and lawyers, especially in battleground states. Some worry the president may instruct Republicans to abandon traditional poll-watching norms and launch mass challenges, but doing so could constitute election interference.
Nearly every state, including Missouri and Kansas, allows for a limited number of partisan representatives to observe voting and vote-counting. But no matter what the president’s call to action may imply, an “army” of citizens can’t just decide to show up at the polls and watch.
In Missouri, partisan observers are usually called poll challengers. Under state law, the chairs of all Democratic and Republican county committees can name one challenger for each precinct and location where votes are counted.
“Every election, there should be poll challengers, because that is our right as a party and our responsibility to do that,” said Penny Henke, vice chair of the St. Charles County Republican Committee.
Henke said her office is accepting volunteers and actively recruiting potential challengers. Ideal candidates include people who have worked as election judges and frequent voters who are familiar with the system, she said.
Maura Browning, a spokesperson for the Missouri Secretary of State Office, said these observers must not interact with individual voters or interfere with the orderly process of voting.
“Watchers can be there to make sure that administering elections is going on like it should — making sure that everyone is getting a ballot, that if someone is not registered, they are given the chance to vote a provisional ballot, that a bipartisan team is always present and ensuring that no one person is handling voted ballots,” Browning said.
In Kansas, partisan representatives who observe voting and vote-counting are called “poll agents.” State law authorizes certain people to fill that role, including candidates, those who have filed affidavits of write-in candidacy, state and county party committee chairs and precinct committee members. Authorized polling agents can also designate one appointed poll agent per precinct.
All poll agents, whether authorized or appointed, must file an appointment form with the county election office and wear a badge identifying them as an observer at all times. Agents may not touch or handle ballots, obstruct voters from entering or exiting the polls or approach within three feet of a voting booth or a table used by the election board.
Confusion and fear
Trump has consistently spread disinformation about mail-in voting, asserting without evidence that it will lead to widespread voter fraud and stoking anxiety about the integrity of the country’s voting systems.
“These allegations about misconduct and voter fraud are completely unsubstantiated,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, who serves as counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. “In court case after court case, when the RNC and the Trump campaign have made allegations of fraud, federal courts have found that the evidence is too scant, too speculative, insufficient to support their claims.”
Missouri officials concerned about fraud point to a 2016 St. Louis case. A judge ordered a new Democratic primary for a state house race after some voters came forward claiming absentee ballots were filled out in their name without their knowledge.
Such instances remain quite rare, but they are enough to convince some Republicans of the need to be hyper vigilant for potential abuse.
David Lightner, chair of the Jackson County Republican Committee, said he shares Trump’s concerns about the integrity of the vote.
“Honestly, I feel that people want to make sure that we get the most open and fair election that we could possibly have this time around, because we feel as Trump feels that there’s some dishonesty with the Democratic Party — I’ll say it,” Lightner said.
He said challengers should be on the lookout for “certain tactics that may create voter fraud” during the vote count. But when pressed, he could not provide specifics.
“There’s all kinds there, and I think just the general statement of voter fraud in Missouri is somewhat well-known,” Lightner said. “And I think those poll watchers, if they’re aware of it, they’ll know through their training what to look for — basically be able to call it out.”
Top executives at the Missouri Republican Party, which is training all Republican challengers in the state, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Sweren-Becker said voter fraud talking points are used to disenfranchise voters.
“The rhetoric is intended to discourage people from participating by making it seem like something scary could happen if they vote,” she said.
Voter intimidation is a federal crime punishable by up to a year in jail. It’s also a felony in both Missouri and Kansas.
Guns are not allowed at the polls in Missouri, but in Kansas, both voters and poll agents with a permit can carry a concealed firearm at some precincts. Polling locations at public schools, churches and other privately owned businesses where guns are barred year-round do not have to make a special exception for voting.
Electioneering laws prohibit people from advocating for or against any candidate or issue within 25 feet of a polling place in Missouri. In Kansas, no one can attempt to persuade voters within 250 feet of a precinct’s entrance.
Trump, who is trailing substantially both in national polls and key swing states, has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power after the election.
In a Washington Post op-ed earlier this month, veteran Republican election attorney Ben Ginsberg warned that the president could potentially enlist partisan observers to help delegitimize unfavorable election results.
“His most obvious tactic would be having the RNC instruct its poll watchers to abandon their traditional role and, instead, lodge mass challenges both as voters cast their ballots and then as mail ballots are tabulated,” Ginsberg wrote.
Sweren-Becker said such an effort would be blatant election interference.
“The fear mongering that the president and others are engaging in simply doesn’t overcome the restrictions in the law that limit what poll watchers can do, that limit what challengers can do, that prohibit intimidation,” she said.
In 2018, the RNC was freed from a federal court consent decree sharply limiting their ability to challenge voters’ eligibility. The decree stemmed from allegations that the RNC participated in voter intimidation by deploying uniformed, off-duty law enforcement officers as a “National Ballot Security Task Force” in heavily Black and Hispanic neighborhoods during the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial race.
Earlier this month, a Tennessee-based private security company posted a listing seeking former U.S. military Special Operations personnel to guard polling sites in Minnesota.
The co-founder of the company said they were hired by a “consortium of business owners and concerned citizens” in Minnesota, but declined to disclose who they were. State Attorney General Keith Ellison said he strongly discourages the “interference” in Minnesota’s elections and has launched an investigation into the company.
For his part, Trump has expressed interest in dispatching law enforcement officials to polling places — even though he lacks the authority to do so.
“We’re going to have everything,” Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity in August. “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.”
Federal law prohibits sending “any troops or armed men” to the polls, and an effort to do so could be punishable by up to five years in prison. Nonmilitary federal law enforcement, including FBI agents and marshals, are also barred from the polls if armed.
And the president has no authority over local law enforcement. Jacob Becchina, a public information officer with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department, said officers will not be standing guard outside of the polls on Election Day.
“We would respond to any call for a disturbance or any issue at a polling place, like any other place where someone feels their safety is threatened or there’s any breach of the peace,” Becchina said.
The department employs a liaison for election days who works directly with local election authorities.
“Any call or any issue that comes up at an election location is to be reported to him for him to liaison with the election authorities,” Becchina said.
After Trump told the far-right, neo-fascist Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by” during the first debate, fears have been raised that unlawful militias may attempt to intimidate voters at the polls.
All 50 states prohibit private, unauthorized militias from engaging in activities reserved for state militias, according to Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, which released a fact sheet on unlawful militias in each state.
In Kansas, it is illegal for people to organize as private militias without permission from the state. Paramilitary activity is a felony in Missouri.
Becchina said Kansas City has seen no major issues with voter intimidation in recent years.
Sweren-Becker said politicians’ tough talk shouldn’t dissuade voters from casting a ballot.
“The best way to combat these rhetorical efforts at voter suppression is to show up and vote, because the election should not be decided by scaring voters away from the polls. It should not be decided by a handful of judges. It should be decided by the millions of American voters.”
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