Aficionados of last-minute ElectionDay dirty tricks are familiar with a ploy Republicans have mastered over the years of intimidating voters with threats that law-enforcement officers will be giving them some extra scrutiny in the vicinity of polling places. Adam Serwer explained it back in 2012 as a classic voter-suppression technique:
Republicans, convinced that Democrats only win elections through voter fraud, have taken to setting up billboards warning that “voter fraud is a felony” in swing states this year. Naturally, these billboards only seem to pop up in minority neighborhoods. It’s unclear how effective the billboards are at intimidating people out of voting, but there’s no mistaking who they’re aimed at. “They use a lot of threatening language to associate voting with a crime, that may just make people want to stay away,” says the Brennan Center’s Larry Norden. Norden says the billboards leave the impression that “if you go to the polls there might be somebody there to take you to jail or fine you”….
Republicans have [also] developed an extensive network of poll watchers who think of themselves as protecting the integrity of the ballot box, but they’re really there to prevent people they think are Democrats from engaging in “voter fraud.” As Brentin Mock noted in his report on the conservative group True the Vote, the group’s national elections coordinator said that he wanted voters to feel like they are “driving and seeing the police following you.”
Sometimes this intimidation technique comes from organized and publicly identified groups like True the Vote, though more often it’s deployed by anonymous schmos operating black-bag operations on the margins of politics. It depends for its effectiveness, of course, on long histories of justified fears in low-income and particularly minority communities of unjustified harassment by law-enforcement personnel whenever they are doing something those in power do not like (you know, like voting for the “wrong” candidates).
It says a lot about how far this country has devolved in respecting voting rights that this year the old “police are watching” gambit is coming from the Oval Office:
This is rather absurd on its face, since it’s not clear what he means by “law enforcement,” given his lack of authority over the state and local personnel mostly responsible for election administration. And how does Trump know that state and local prosecutors would pursue Maximum Criminal Penalties for illegal voting? Yes, in theory the feds could intervene to punish fradulent voting in elections involving federal offices. But since in-person voter fraud (the kind Trump is talking about) is as rare as a blue rose, there’s no reason it should be a priority for stretched-thin federal agencies.
There has, traditionally, been an important role for the Feds on Election Day: enforcement of the Voting Rights Act in places where minority voters have historically struggled to exercise the franchise. The evisceration of the VRA by the Supreme Court in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision has liberated election officials in the mostly Republican South and elsewhere to do everything in their power to discourage robust minority voting. But still, as in the past, the Justice Department has announced it is deploying attorneys to 35 jurisdictions to monitor VRA compliance. Trump, however, is signaling that they are not necessarily going to be there to fight for the right to vote, and may in fact have the opposite intention. Even if Sessions’s minions plan to act in good faith, their ultimate boss is suggesting The Law is there to keep an eye on those people.
Given his relentless if fact-free insistence that Democrats regularly benefit from illegal voting, perhaps Trump is simply setting the table for postelection rationalizations of Democratic gains (much as he dismissed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 popular-vote victory as the product of “millions of illegal votes,” without evidence). Or maybe he just heard about this intimidation technique, and thought it was too cool to leave to the locals.
In any event, Trump is providing a sadly appropriate coda to an election cycle in which Republicans have often exploited their control over election machinery to improve their electoral chances (most famously in Georgia, where Secretary of State Brian Kemp has aggressively sought to cut every available corner to deny votes to his gubernatorial opponent Stacey Abrams). In this, as in so many other respects, the president is setting quite the example for his party in lowering the tone of political discourse to previously unknown levels.