WASHINGTON — For Donald Trump, questioning whether the campaign will be “rigged” has become a campaign stump mantra. For Republican National Committee lawyers, it’s become a different kind of worry.
Trump has repeatedly invited his followers to watch polling areas.
“Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times,” he said at a rally in Pennsylvania this summer.
Now, a federal judge wants to hear more. A hearing is scheduled for Friday in New Jersey, and the RNC has been directed to provide information detailing “any efforts regarding poll watching or poll observation.”
The RNC is forbidden from engaging in any ballot security activities that might deter qualified voters from voting because of a decades old consent decree that has been modified over the years and is set to expire at the end of 2017.
The consent decree arose in the early 1980s after the RNC was accused of intimidating registered voters in predominately African-American precincts in New Jersey. The RNC allegedly enlisted the help of off-duty police officers to intimidate voters by standing at polling places with “National Ballot Security Task Force” armbands. To settle the lawsuit, the RNC entered into the agreement.
Democratic lawyers have already gone to court in New Jersey asking that the judge extend the consent decree for several more years arguing that the RNC has enabled Trump’s efforts to “intimidate and discourage minority voters” from voting.
It submitted to the court a statement from a DNC volunteer in Nevada, Ellyn Lindsay, who said she had met a poll observer, Kishanna Holland, who said she worked for the RNC. According to Lindsay, Holland told her, “This is Shana from RNC.”
Joshua A. Douglas, an election law expert at the University of Kentucky School of Law, points out that under the decree, Holland would not be allowed to represent the RNC in undertaking ‘ballot security’ activities as a poll observer.
“The RNC has coordinated with the Trump campaign in its unlawful ‘ballot security’ efforts,” DNC lawyer Angelo J. Genova argued in the lawsuit. “Trump’s running mate, Gov. Mike Pence has publicly confirmed that both the RNC and the Trump campaign are working directly with state Republican parties on so called ‘ballot security measures’ ” he said.
Lawyers for the RNC disagree.
“The RNC has scrupulously complied with its obligations under the consent decree,” wrote RNC lawyer Bobby Burchfield,. Burchfield outlined that the RNC has “reminded” the Trump campaign of the restrictions imposed on the RNC under the consent decree.
“In a letter to Donald F. McGahn II, the lead attorney for the Trump campaign,” Burchfield argued, the RNC’s chief counsel “explained that the RNC is covered by , and strictly complies with, the consent decree and thus would not engage in any ballot security efforts.”
The letter went on to inform the Trump campaign that “anyone associated with his campaign are not agents of the RNC.”
Judge John Michael Vazquez has scheduled a hearing for Friday morning to discuss the fillings, as well as to inquire about the statements made by Pence.
“The legal issues are important, especially if the court extends the consent decree beyond this election,” Douglas said. “But for election day, the case is more a political story than a legal one.”
“If the court rules in favor of the DNC, it might order the RNC to take certain active measures which could divert resources from its get out the vote efforts in the crucial last days before the election,” he said. “It would also counter balance the election rigging theme coming from the Trump campaign, with a federal judge essentially saying that ‘no, it’s the Republicans and Trump doing it.'”
Democratic lawyers have filed four related lawsuits in the states of Nevada, Ohio, Arizona and Pennsylvania.
These lawsuits target the Trump campaign and the state republican parties for “voter intimidation” the lawyers say is in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.
In court papers they argued “Trump has made an escalating series of statements, often racially tinged, suggesting that his supporters should go to particular precincts on election Day and intimidate voters.”
“This planned course of intimidation,” they argued, “violates the Voting Rights Act.”
Roger Stone activities
The Democrats also targeted Roger Stone, who they call a “longtime associate” of Trump who they say runs a website called “stopthesteal.org.”
“Defendant Stop the Steal Inc is a ‘super PAC’ formed by Stone on April 6, 2016,” they said, “devoted to promoting Stone’s conspiracy theories regarding voter fraud, and to using fears of a ‘rigged’ election to organize and recruit poll watchers to harass and intimidate perceived Democratic voters on Election Day.”
They also link Stone to activities that caused the RNC to sign the consent decree in 1981.
“Stone was a key advisor to the 1981 campaign of former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, in which a ‘ballot security” force wearing black armbands engaged in widespread voter intimidation in Democratic areas of the state, leading to the above-described nationwide consent decree barring supposed ballot security efforts by the Republican Party.”
Stone did not immediately return emails requesting comment.
Election law expert Richard Hasen who runs the Election Law Blog, says it is “not clear” that a court would issue a vague order to stop “voter intimidation” as requested by the Democrats in the four lawsuits.
“But the suits will first bring publicity to the activities, and second get these parties on record stating that they do not plan on engaging in voter intimidation, which itself could be useful in the event of problems on Election Day,” he wrote.