Calls for Citizen Poll Monitors Could Lead to Voter Discrimination in Alabama

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We’ve heard the claims for months now.

“The process is rigged. This whole election is being rigged,” says Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. He’s insinuating that if he loses his presidential bid it’s because the election system is rigged.

Claims of possible voter fraud and calls for citizen poll watchers have government agencies and civil rights groups in Alabama taking precautions. But there are some who believe in the possibility of a rigged election.

“I agree with Donald Trump. You’ve got to be concerned about voter fraud. Not [what] just could possibly happen in Alabama, but all over the nation,” says Perry O. Hooper, the Alabama Co-Chairman for Trump for President. His group has been working with the state Republican Party to train poll workers for the election. Hooper says it’s “to help voters maintain honesty and integrity.”

Poll watchers in Alabama are nothing new and there is a process residents must go through in order to be poll watchers. But the calls from Donald Trump have escalated. He’s gone so far as to encourage all of his supporters to watch the polls, not just those who receive training. This could lead to coercion.

“The Trump people would never intimidate a soul. We are not about intimidation,” says Hooper.

Maybe not in Alabama, but Trump’s call for poll monitors has garnered some frightening reactions beyond the state. A recent article from the Boston Globe quoted a Trump supporter in the swing state of Ohio who said he plans on racially profiling people and “making them a little bit nervous.” And when calls turn to action, federal officials cringe.

“I don’t think we need citizen vigilante groups protecting these elections,” says U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance of the Northern District of Alabama. Vance’s office, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Birmingham branch, will be handling calls about voter intimidation and fraud on Election Day as part of a Justice Department program.  The program, in its fortieth year according to Vance, is a nationwide Justice Department effort.

“This election is really no different than any other,” Vance says. “Our goal here is to protect and vindicate the rights of the American public to elect their leaders and we’ll do that like we do every election year.”

The program has been around for decades, but the DOJ is promoting more public awareness this time around. U.S. Attorneys from all over the South, including South Carolina and Louisiana, are making more of a coordinated effort to let the public know they’re available on Election Day. The program also includes deploying poll monitors. However, Alabama’s participation in the DOJ poll monitoring program changed in 2013 following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“That happened after a case that actually came out of Alabama, the Shelby County case,” Vance says. “So a decision was made inside of the Department of Justice that we could no longer have monitors inside of polling places as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in that case.”

Only a handful of states will now allow federal poll watchers inside polling areas. Less federal oversight on the ground could mean problems at the polls and that’s exactly what groups like the Oath Keepers are looking for. The group recruits from the military and law enforcement and has called upon their members to blend in at the polls and report suspected illegal activity. This call to action is worrying civil rights organizations.

“We’re concerned that groups like the Oath Keepers, and individuals that are not at all affiliated with any hate or extremist groups, have been convinced, or are being made to believe that the election is rigged,” says Lecia Brooks with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. The SPLC will also be deploying poll monitors to key areas around Montgomery to watch for signs of voter discrimination, Brooks says.

Nationally, Democrats have already filed several lawsuits over alleged illegal poll monitoring. With a record 3.3 million Alabamians registered to vote, and no early voting in the state, whether there will be voter fraud or intimidation at the polls remains to be seen.