Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Oct. 13, 2016, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

Trump’s poll-watching scheme creates legal fight for RNC

One of the key elements of Donald Trump’s closing messages to voters is that the entire election process is “rigged.” He has no proof of an elaborate conspiracy, but the GOP nominee is nevertheless convinced nefarious forces are working against him.

To that end, Trump is urging his followers to not only vote for him, but also to volunteer for his campaign’s “poll-monitoring” program. As the Republican candidate sees it, Trump’s devotees should travel to areas where the right suspects voter fraud – invariably, their concerns focus on urban areas where voters tend to be people of color – and effectively serve as vigilantes on behalf of the GOP presidential ticket, inspecting voting precincts and looking for suspicious voters.

As one Trump voter, responding to the candidate’s call, recently explained, “I’ll look for … well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American. I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”

The Rachel Maddow Show, 10/26/16, 9:00 PM ET

RNC in legal trouble over Trump call for poll-watchers

Rachel Maddow reports on how the RNC has been restricted by a legal consent decree over past racially charged poll watching activities, and a new legal case against the RNC over Donald Trump’s calls for poll watching vigilantism.
Rachel Maddow reports on how the RNC has been restricted by a legal consent decree over past racially charged poll watching activities, and a new legal case against the RNC over Donald Trump’s calls for poll watching vigilantism.
As Rachel explained at the top of last night’s show, this initiative generated an important court filing yesterday from the Democratic National Committee. Bloomberg Politics reported:
In a preemptive strike against what it called a coordinated effort to intimidate voters, the Democratic Party’s governing body alleged Wednesday that the Republican National Committee is violating a court order in a case that started 35 years ago.

The RNC is supporting Trump’s recruitment of so-called watchers at polling places, which is in breach of consent decrees going back to 1982 that forbid the group from engaging in ballot-security measures, according to a filing in federal court in Newark, New Jersey. The DNC said the watchers are really intended to deter registered voters from casting ballots.
I can appreciate why phrases like “breach of consent decrees” might make this story seem a little dry and complex, but stick with me because this one’s going somewhere interesting. As Rachel said on the air last night, “This is a big deal.”

Some context is probably in order. In 1981, there was a very competitive gubernatorial race in New Jersey, which the Republican National Committee was eager to win. So eager, in fact, that the RNC launched a program called the “Ballot Security Task Force,” which involved having Republican operatives and off-duty law enforcement personnel hanging around dozens of minority-voting precincts, looking for evidence of election irregularities, and intimidating local voters.

The campaign was not subtle: Republicans put up warning signs, telling locals that their precincts were being monitored, and creating quasi-official arm bands for the party’s monitors to wear while physically patrolling polling places in areas made up mostly of minority voters.

In one sense, the heavy-handed scheme worked: the Republicans successfully intimidated people of color and narrowly won New Jersey’s gubernatorial election that year. But the victory came at a price: the RNC’s scare tactics were so outrageous, and the scheme targeted black voters so brazenly, that the Republican Party faced a court fight that they lost.

The RNC felt compelled to accept a 35-year consent decree that included legal restrictions on the party’s efforts to monitor polling locations. Republicans would love to get out from under these constraints, and party officials are looking forward to the decree’s expiration next year.

But that’s where Donald Trump comes into the picture. By court order, the RNC can’t dispatch officials to hang around polling places, intimidating minorities, but this year, the RNC’s presidential candidate is doing exactly that – pleading with Republican voters to serve as voting vigilantes on behalf of the Republican ticket, just like the party did in New Jersey in 1981.

Not surprisingly, the DNC noticed, and Democratic lawyers headed to court yesterday to argue, in effect, “Hey, judge, remember that consent decree imposed on the RNC? Republicans are now violating it. Those restrictions that were supposed end next year? It’s obvious they need to be extended until 2025.”

The RNC insists that it’s honored the consent decree, but Trump’s actions undermine the party’s argument. As UC-Irvine professor Rick Hasen, an elections-law expert, has explained, the Republican National Committee is effectively having to go to court and argue that the party has nothing to do with its own candidate’s campaign schemes.

If judges reject the RNC’s argument, an extension of the consent decree is likely. Watch this space.