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Fear Of Voter Intimidation Is Its Own Voter Intimidation

In 1981, the Republican National Committee sent hundreds of armed, off-duty police officers to the polls in the state of New Jersey. Dressed in official-looking “National Ballot Security Task Force” armbands, they demanded voter registration cards from people waiting in line in heavily Black and Hispanic districts, turning some voters away and intimidating others into not voting at all.

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As my colleague Clare Malone has written, the whole thing was illegal. After a lawsuit, it led to a 37-year-long ban preventing the RNC from organizing poll watching efforts. This will be the first presidential election without the ban in place. It is also a presidential election where the incumbent has cast doubt on the trustworthiness of the election, toyed repeatedly with the idea of not giving up office and recruited thousands of poll watchers. It is also a presidential election where far-right militias and other supporters of the president have discussed showing up, armed, at polling sites.

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But despite that tension, neither experts in election law nor experts in militia and armed radical groups believe we are likely to see a repeat of what happened in New Jersey nearly four decades ago. Why? Partly, it’s because laws heavily restrict what poll watchers can do and how they can do it. And partly, experts told me, it’s because the actual job of poll watching is unlikely to appeal to the groups and individuals whose presence would be most dangerous.

None of the experts I spoke to thought it was a good idea to dismiss the risk of armed or threatening poll disruptors out of hand. But they did want to make sure that the media and the public were realistic about the concern.

“I’m not sure it would be accurate to say I’m not worried. It’s my job to worry about everything,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program. “But in terms of assessing risk and the probability of it being more than a bunch of isolated incidences, there’s reason to believe this is lower on the concern list.”

That’s true, from her perspective, because of the tight and heavily enforced array of laws protecting polling places on election day. While poll watchers are legal — and, in some states, can challenge individual voters’ eligibility at the polls on the basis of things like residency or citizenship — the job isn’t just a free-for-all for whoever happens to decide to show up. There are lots of laws around how poll watchers must be registered and trained, and who can and can’t be one. Depending on the state, they might not be able to even talk to voters. There can only be so many at any polling location. And when those rules are violated, there is generally swift follow-up by the judiciary, poll workers and, if necessary, police. For example, in 2008, challengers in Michigan and Indiana tried to use foreclosure and eviction notices to create a list of voters who might be voting in the wrong district. That practice was quickly ruled illegal before it was enacted because it discriminated against low-income voters.

Of course, enforcement gets tricky when police become part of the problem. Enlisting officers as part of a partisan poll watching campaign isn’t limited to the distant past. In 2008, for example, on-duty officers in Michigan showed up at polling places to scan voter lines for people with outstanding warrants, something the Brennan Center categorizes as voter intimidation. Police-based voter intimidation has a long enough history that there are a number of states that expressly forbid law enforcement from being at polling places at all, unless they’re there to vote themselves. This history creates a tricky situation in a year where voters may want protection at the polls, but where officers may not know the best way to deescalate or (as in a recent case in Florida) may be friends with the people doing the intimidation.

“From my research, I’ve observed that these men react negatively to the perception that they’re there to cause a problem,” said Amy Cooter, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University who does ethnographic interviews on militias and related groups. Her research suggests that framing armed people outside the polls as part of the social and political fabric makes them less likely to cause a problem. But she also acknowledged that that information wasn’t particularly helpful to voters who found the presence of armed people at a polling site intimidating.

“I’m glad I’m not law enforcement trying to come up with a perfect answer,” she said.

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But, laws aside, there’s reason to think groups that have shown up to protests in many cities this summer won’t be making a leap to polling places, experts told me. “There’s a long long history of threats being not something that is ever followed through on,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, chair and lead researcher of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies.

One of the main impediments individual citizens or armed groups like the Proud Boys policing the polls is, ironically, also one of the main impediments to voting itself — simply having the time outside work and family commitments, Cooter said.

Cooter described her sources expressing heightened concern about the integrity of elections, compared to previous years, and a desire to combat the perceived risk of fraud. But, for most of them, she told me, there’s not a sense that they really have the ability to do anything about it, personally. The ones who have volunteered as poll watchers in the past, she said, did so in ways that followed the rules.

There’s also the simple matter that, for those people interested in breaking the rules, a polling place wouldn’t offer a very interesting or rewarding experience, Rosenthal said. There’s no marching, he pointed out. There’s no good opportunity for confrontation with left-wing counterparts, real or imagined. It’s mostly just a lot of standing around outside at a distance, if you aren’t an official poll watcher. Rosenthal thinks it’s unlikely that that scenario would attract any serious, organized response.

None of this precludes lone wolf scenarios — where one or two troublemakers show up intent on intimidation. And what happens after the election, if the vote is contested, is anyone’s guess. But the experts I spoke to wanted to make it clear that violence and real physical threats were unlikely on Election Day itself. The bigger risk, right they told me, is that fear of voter intimidation could lead to, well, voter intimidation.

“There’s a danger in overplaying this risk and making it seem more dangerous than it actually is,” Cooter said. “In a way that could have a suppressive effect on desire to go vote.”

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.