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Transcript: Into Intimidation at the Polls

The full episode transcript for Into Intimidation at the Polls.

Trymaine Lee: Election Day is less than three weeks away, but millions of Americans are already voting. This week, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to urge his supporters to volunteer as election poll watchers, as part of what the campaign calls, the "Army for Trump." That echoes what he said in the first presidential debate.

Chris Wallace: President Trump--

President Trump: I'm urging--

Wallace: --you go first--

Trump: --my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that's what has to happen. I am urging them to do it.

Lee: And what he's repeated on the campaign trail.

Trump: Gotta be careful with those ballots. Watch those ballots. I don't like it. You know, you have a Democrat governor, you have all these Democrats watchin' that stuff. I don't like it.

Lee: Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee set a goal of recruiting 50,000 poll watchers across the country. The RNC and Trump campaign say it's all in the name of ballot security, and that these monitors are necessary to combat possible voter fraud, which, by the way, is actually very rare.

But election officials and advocates worry that these tactics could intimidate Democratic voters, especially in Black and brown communities. And there is a ripe example in my home state of New Jersey, where once upon a time, misconduct at the polls have real consequences.

Mark Krasovic: It blurs the lines between sort of official election and poll worker and poll watching functions, blurs the lines between that, law enforcement, and then white vigilantism.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today we're bringing you the story of a gubernatorial race from the early '80s that tells us about the effects of voter intimidation. Plus, my colleague Jane Timm on what to expect from poll watchers this election, and what happens when this practice becomes a tool for voter suppression. We don't have to go far back in our nation's history to find a time when voter intimidation played a key role in that election.

Krasovic: So 1981 New Jersey, and New Jersey governor's races are held in off years.

Lee: Mark Krasovic is a history professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He's written a lot about this period in New Jersey politics.

Krasovic: And because it's 1981, the election is sort of taken as an early referendum on the Reagan years.

Lee: Republican, Tom Kean, was running against Democrat Jim Florio. Florio was a representative from New Jersey's first congressional district. Kean was the former speaker of the state assembly, and he had already made a failed bid for the governorship in 1977.

Krasovic: So the Republican Tom Kean is endorsed by Reagan, and he talks about corporate tax cuts and other things that we associate with the Reagan era.

Tom Kean: I know it's strange to a lot of people when government talks about perhaps reducing taxes instead of raising taxes, but to me, it's gonna take that bold, imaginative approach, if we're really gonna turn around this economy.

Krasovic: Jim Florio, the Democrat targets exactly those things. He warns voters that social spending and social policy is at risk, and that supply-side economics are not going to work.

Jim Florio: Tom early on said that he was putting together the supply-side theory that was going to do for New Jersey what the administration's proposal was doing for the country. I'm not sure he wants to keep saying that. We are now officially, as you all know, in an recession.

Krasovic: So it's an important election in New Jersey for sure, but it also has had a national resonance.

Lee: What was Tom Kean's strategy goin' into this?

Krasovic: Well, you know, Tom Kean is sort of famously a gentlemanly moderate, you know, in some cases, in some policies, liberal Republican. But I think most notably, what he did that was different was that he decided to contest New Jersey's cities, these sort of Democratic strongholds that hadn't supported Republican candidates in any significant way for a very long time, if ever. And so he reached out to civil rights groups and probably most significantly, reached out to white working class voters.

Lee: Kean did his outreach in cities across New Jersey, but perhaps most notably in the city of Newark.

Krasovic: He campaigned heavily in the North Ward, which was a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood, working class with one of Newark's most infamous historical characters, Anthony Imperiale, who some, you know, lionize as a great defender and preserver of community, and some denounced as a racist white vigilante.

Lee: Anthony Imperiale made his name more than a decade earlier when the City of Newark was in the midst of an uprising similar to what we're seeing today. Newark, Watts, Harlem, Detroit, all of these cities were convulsing in protest and violence in response to racial injustice, in what would become known as the long hot summer of 1967.

Krasovic: This is the July of 1967 when he organizes patrols of neighbors and friends to sort of guard the line between what was a predominantly Black central ward and the predominantly white North ward, the idea being to protect, preserve that white community against what he deemed Black rioters. And these patrols continued for years and years afterwards.

Lee: And Anthony Imperiale is the guy Tom Kean taps to help him win the election.

Krasovic: You know, Kean is in a sense, it seems, trying to have it both ways, trying to thread that very difficult needle. But the National Republican Party and the State Party seemingly divorced from the campaign itself, that was the claim made at the time. While Kean is courting these white ethnic voters, they are concocting this scheme to suppress Black and brown votes in New Jersey cities.

Lee: This scheme, as Mark describes it, was a highly organized effort funded by the Republican Party.

Krasovic: So what happened was the RNC, the National Republican group and the state party in New Jersey joined forces, and they create a project that they call Commitment 81. And there are two things that Commitment 81 did in New Jersey. The first is what is known now as voter caging.

So they sent out about 200,000 letters targeted to predominantly Black and brown voting districts. And the letters are marked "Return to Sender." And so when they get something, I've seen various numbers even in the reporting at the time, something like anywhere from 25,000 upwards to near 50,000 of those letters are returned other them, they take that as evidence that these people are no longer eligible voters, that they do not live at the address that is shown on their voting rolls.

So then they take the list of names to local election officials and demand that those voters be removed from the rolls. The problem was, as it turned out, they were using outdated voting lists. And the election officials assure them, "We've already taken care of it, the rolls are clean. You know, you guys don't need to worry."

But they use those lists nonetheless to challenge voters and decide where they're going to challenge voters at the polls. And this is the really, you know, sort of fascinating, dreadful part of this story that then they create the second phase of Commitment 81's work, which was the National Ballot Security Task Force, this task force that they made up out of thin air.

Lee: This so-called National Ballot Security Task Force was part of this joint effort by the Republican National Committee and the State Republican Party in New Jersey.

Krasovic: And that task force is comprised of county Republican officials who then hired off-duty police officers, sheriffs, deputies, and other security personnel to poll watch at election spots in predominantly Black and brown districts, in Trenton, in Camden, in Vineland, in South Jersey, in Atlantic City. But in Essex County where Newark is, it wasn't the county Republican chair who led this. They hired Anthony Imperiale to do that in Newark.

Lee: And so how widespread are we talking? How many people statewide are we talkin' about?

Krasovic: So the task force employed about 200 people statewide.

Lee: That's a lotta people.

Krasovic: It is. It's not clear to me the exact numbers in each city, but it seems that the vast majority of those people that were hired were stationed in Newark, in Trenton especially.

Lee: What would I have seen? I walk up to the polling place that day, ready to vote for whoever I'm voting for. What would I have seen?

Krasovic: Some people say they saw the posters first. These are big posters, bright red letters that said, "Warning, this area's being patrolled by the National Ballot Security Task Force," and offering a 1-800 number and a reward for any information about, you know, voter fraud, voting irregularities.

And then they saw the guns, it seems. They saw people carrying guns at their sides, patrolling these voting place. They were given bright blue arm bands to wear around their biceps that identified them as National Ballot Security Task Force members, and you might have been approached and you might have been challenged.

"Do you have your registration card? Can you show some ID?" If you do not have those things, then they might physically block you. In some cases, they told people they needed to visit such-and-such a judge and get certified. And if they did that, then they could return.

In Newark, one poll worker was told that she better not be around there after dark. So there were at least the implications, if not outright threats of physical violence. But what seems, you know, in addition to all those specifics really important is that, in the end, it was an effort to sort of gum up the works, to slow things down, to make people scared or hesitant, if not to just outright prevent them from voting.

Lee: Shortly after the polls closed on election night, two networks declared Democrat Jim Florio the winner. But just as Tom Kean was preparing to concede, the numbers shifted and put him in the lead. Florio called for a recount, and officials opened voting machines and double-checked absentee ballots.

Archival Recording: Though New Jersey officials spent the day canvassing the state's more than 5,000 precincts and retabulated yesterday's vote for governor, they still couldn't say for certain who had won the race.

Lee: As the weeks passed, both men prepared to take office as the governor, but 27 days later, on December 1st, Florio conceded, and New Jersey had its new governor.

Krasovic: Tom Kean, the Republican. So after the recount by the final margin was 1,797 votes out of about 2.3 million cast. So it was just, you know, a ridiculously tight election. Despite that, the Democrats sort of seemed unwilling to say that these voter suppression efforts cost them the election.

Lee: What do you think? Do you think voter suppression played a role in who won that race for governor in '81?

Krasovic: Fewer than 1,800 votes out of 2.3 million, I mean, that seems certainly plausible to me. I mean, almost impossible to prove, but certainly seems plausible. And the National GOP Chairman, Rich Richards at the time said that they planned to roll out similar tactics nationwide the following year.

And so the Democratic message became, "We want to stop this from happening anywhere else." It happened here, but it's got to stop. This has to be the last time. And so they bring suit in federal court against the Republican Party, and that's what leads to a consent decree that outlaws many of these practices.

Lee: A consent decree means that the Republicans came to an agreement with the federal government, rather than moving the case through the court system.

Krasovic: It applied to the RNC, the national group, and the state party in New Jersey. So it did not apply to specific campaigns. So the Kean campaign or the Trump campaign or any other Republican campaign was not bound by the consent decree, and neither were other state parties.

So it was just New Jersey state party and the RNC. And essentially what it does, you know, there are some, you know, it seems sort of obvious language about, "You shall obey all local and state election laws." And then there are things that are more targeted to what had happened in '81.

So the RNC and the state party agree to "refrain from interrogating voters at polling places, to refrain from basing their ballot security activities on a district's racial or ethnic composition, to refrain from dressing or equipping their employees or agents in any way that would suggest that they are performing an official state function."

And there's a short one at the end that says, "Refrain from having any of their employees deputized as law enforcement officers in any ballot security activities," because that did happen in one case. The guy sort of right above Imperiale, the guy who ran the statewide effort was deputized as a sheriff's deputy in Essex County.

Lee: It all sounds so amazing, and it's also wild that you'd have to have that in a consent decree. That sounds like somethin' that should be part of the natural course of business. But is that consent decree still in effect? Because again, those seem like things that we want to spell out regardless of the year.

Krasovic: It is not. It was allowed to expire just a year or two ago, and in the end, the judge that the consent decree was created under, who himself is sort of a legendary Newark lawyer and judge, former civil rights person, was the first president of the Newark Legal Services Project, under the War on Poverty in the '60s, a guy named Dickinson Debevoise.

So Debevoise, you know, creates the consent decree originally, renews it over the decades, oversees it until his death just a couple years ago. And after the 2016 election, the Democrats again ask for it to be renewed, and they present what they think is evidence of coordination between the RNC and the Trump campaign. So that would have meant the RNC had broken the terms of the consent decree. The new judge is not convinced and essentially allows it to expire.

Lee: With the consent decree expired, this will be the first presidential election since 1984 where the Republican National Committee and the state Republican Party of New Jersey will not be forced to abide by that agreement, which sought to prevent voter suppression and intimidation. So what does that mean, and what can 1981 teach us about 2020? More on that with my colleague Jane Timm, a political reporter at NBC News after the break.

Lee: And now we turn from the past to this election, the one that's less than three weeks away, with Jane Timm, political reporter here at NBC News. Jane, thank you so much for joining us.

Jane Timm: Hey Trymaine, thanks for having me.

Lee: I mean, fact-checker extraordinaire, NBC's, like, in-house, like, your brand is the facts.

Timm: Yeah, what's true and what's not.

Lee: I love it, Jane. So that's why I wanted to make sure we have you here today, because we just heard this wild story of voter suppression out of my home state of New Jersey back in '81. The Republicans deployed, like, this wild voter suppression intimidation effort. They were placed under a consent decree, but that consent decree is now expired. And I wonder, what does that mean in practice? Like, they're not bound by the consent decree anymore, but what does that actually mean?

Timm: So what's interesting is that consent decree, it didn't stop the RNC and Republican candidates from poll watching, but it stopped them from doing these ballot security measures. So the kind of poll watching that they wanted to do. So what they can do now is do their ballot security operations without talking to a court and making sure it's kosher, that it's not gonna discriminate and not gonna intimidate voters.

Lee: What should we expect?

Timm: I think we can expect a lot more poll watchers out there, a lot more organized poll watchers, and poll watchers that are specifically looking for voter fraud. And I think we should be really clear here. Voter fraud is not a problem in American elections.

It's extremely rare. When it happens, it's often confused voters, and that malicious, sort of want to vote twice kinda person, it's microscopic in the ecosystem of American elections. And to have a huge operation, what they say is an army of vote watchers or poll watchers is, I mean, it's a big reaction to a problem that's not there.

Lee: President Trump has said he's gonna send law enforcement, you know, the men who have the guns on their hips, law enforcement to the polls to prevent fraud.

Trump: We're gonna have everything. We're gonna have sheriffs, and we're gonna have law enforcement, and we're going to have hopefully U.S. attorneys, and we're going to have everybody, and attorney generals.

Lee: And that's starting to sound a lot like Jersey in '81 to me, but you are the fact checker. Let's get a fact checker here. Does President Trump actually have the authority to do that?

Timm: No, he can't. Wendy Weiser, one of the top voting rights experts in the country, I called her up when he said that, and she said, "That's when we get into coup territory. Like, federal law enforcement agencies don't have the authority to be going into polling places."

And they actually have rules on the books about not even running sort of other adjacent operations at the polls, because you don't want to have law enforcement at voting locations. The question is whether or not he's talking about maybe off-duty police officers like what we saw in 1981, the kinda security personnel or retired, you know, forces, or that's the worry.

And, you know, you wonder that poll watching might veer into voter intimidation, where you have somebody who is just intimidating voters and making them feel less comfortable about casting their ballot. That's when you start to worry about this idea. But he has no ability to just send in the troops to guard polling elections over some boogie man of voter fraud.

Lee: Trump and the Trump campaign has also called for people to volunteer as part of, and I want to make sure we say this right, "the Army for Trump." What do we know about this group?

Timm: You know, that the broad term they use for people who are volunteering for the campaign and being involved in canvassing and get out the vote efforts. But I think it's really important to talk about how militarized this language is. You know, you go, which I did last night. And it's "enlist," "fight for Trump." Donald Trump Jr. recorded this recruitment video with this sort of action movie music behind it warning of millions of fraudulent ballots.

Donald Trump, Jr.: They are planting stories that President Trump will have a landslide lead on election night but will lose when they finish counting the mail-in ballots. Their plan is to add millions of fraudulent ballots that can cancel your vote and overturn the election. We cannot let that happen. We need every able-bodied man--

Timm: He says, "We need every able-bodied man, woman to join Army For Trump's Election Security Operation." And this is false. If you think about it, elections are run by volunteers every two or four years. It's a really, really big undertaking. And, like, you know, machines break, our election infrastructure is very old.

So those things happen, but it doesn't mean there's fraud happening, and it doesn't mean anything's rigged. The idea that you're telling people to fight and enlist, I think it raises tensions. And, you know, it could create sort of a powder keg where people are acting out and doing things they're not supposed to. It's really worrisome.

Lee: I can only imagine, you talk about a powder keg, what are, you know, voting experts, what are their real concerns about this? You laid some of it out, but what are they saying?

Timm: So voting experts say, you know, we're really worried about voters being disenfranchised. They're even more worried about these sort of poll watchers and these aberrations just gumming up the works. You know, the gumming up the works actually can be disenfranchising.

So if the lines get longer, people don't vote. They see the line out the door, and they're, like, "Goodness gracious, I'm not gonna vote". Voting experts are particularly worried about voters of color. Because let's just be frank. American elections work better for white people.

One of the strongest predictors of how long you'll wait in line to vote is your race, and it's simply because white districts get more resources. So if you have less resources in a minority district, and now there's poll watchers and challenges that might be gummin' up the works and slowin' down your line, it's just more disenfranchisement, longer lines. Inefficiency can be disenfranchising in its own way.

Lee: And then you add to that this current climate where you have militia groups and white supremacists and Proud Boys and Boogaloo crew. You have all these people, and then there's talk of some places hiring ex-military. And there's concern that what if, and not to be hyperbolic here, but are they gonna be hiring these types to be watching minority polls?

Timm: This is absolutely a worry, and I talked to a disinformation researcher over the weekend about how much poll watching was making it into these sort of disinformation militia organized communities. And she said, "You know, it's anecdotal, but we're seeing it, and we're seeing militias sort of move more into the political mainstream." And that she's starting to see those, you know, people share the poll watcher recruitment materials.

And I mean, militarized language does appeal to people who are organizing the militias. And we should be clear that, like, voter intimidation is so illegal. You know, if you're bringing a gun to a polling place and saying you're fighting fraud, like, chances are the sheriff's gonna come over and say, "You've gotta go." But we don't know how many people are gonna show up, and we don't know what's gonna happen outside the polling place.

Lee: You know, obviously, a feeling of intimidation is subjective in so many ways. But I would venture to say, you know, someone staring over your shoulder with a gun on their hip could be intimidating. Do you have a sense of these poll watchers, especially in an open-carry state, can they openly carry or even conceal-carry? Can they be armed?

Timm: I mean, in most polling places, you cannot have a gun. There are certain states that have it explicitly in the law that you cannot have guns there. I think there's only four states where you can have a concealed carry inside a polling location. And I think states in the federal law enforcement agencies are preparing for this. But you hope that none of this happens. You hope that everything goes smoothly, because everyone does have a legal right to go and vote.

Lee: So we have a sense of what poll watchers, what they can't do, right. You can't show up with your local thugs, your organized guys with the guns, and you can't harass people like they were accused of doin' back in '81. But what can they actually do?

Timm: So poll watchers for the most part in every state are watching polls. You know, they watch things. They make sure the machines don't clog. If they do get clogged, they make sure those ballots are processed properly. You know, they make sure that, you know, people's registrations have been checked in the proper way or however that might be.

In some states, I think ten states, poll watchers can actually challenge the eligibility of a voter. Most poll watchers cannot talk to voters, but they can have poll workers talk to voters and ask questions about their eligibility, if there is some valid reason to believe they might not be eligible to vote. And typically, that means poll watchers will often utilize public records and change of address forms.

Lee: But let me ask you, Jane, how does that work? Like, you wouldn't know, if I just come up to my polling place and there's this poll watcher, what is he cross-referencing? How is he or she engaging with me? Like, you wouldn't know what my address is, what is the signature--

Timm: So he's not gonna engage with you, and I think that's important that people should not worry about, like, a poll watcher coming and interrogating them. And if that's happening, they should tell a poll worker, because the poll workers are the ones you're supposed to talk to.

But they might have a list of everyone in your community who's died who shouldn't be on the polls, because obviously they're dead. And they might have a list of people who have moved. You know, there's public records that exist that poll watchers have in the past used to sort of cross-reference.

And the reason this is hypothetical and a little bit vague is that we haven't seen this in a long time. But what experts tell me they can do is look at those things, and if they say, "Well, a Trymaine Lee from that address recently moved," they could say, "Can the poll worker make sure their address is up to date."

But the problem is, is that, and particular within communities of color, a lotta people have similar names. Statistically more likely to have similar names. And also, data entry in America is not actually that great, so your public records might be inaccurate. And that's where you worry about the gummed up works.

You worry about an eligible voter going, "I'm totally eligible to vote. I registered last month. I'm on the books, that's me." And some guy saying, "Nope, that's not you." You know, that's the worry. Now not every state allows those challenges. It's a minority of states that allow those challenges, but they can be influential. And I looked up those states that are there, like, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan. Those are influential states.

Lee: Huh. So what should you do? You know, you're John Smith. You go to vote early, and there's some poll watcher who, you know, refers your name to the poll worker. What recourse do you have? Like, if you're challenged, what can you do?

Timm: Stay there and vote a provisional ballot. Absolutely, you're always eligible to vote your provisional ballot. And then call your local Board of Elections and say, "What do I need to do to make sure my vote counts?" There's also hotlines you can call with questions or to report these things. 1-866-OUR-VOTE. It's a non-partisan hotline. And reporters like me review sort of the information that those hotlines are getting to make sure and identify these problems.

Lee: So we know Republicans have a strategy for Election Day. The Trump administration is, you know, rallying their Army for Trump. And we know that the rules vary depending on what state you're in. But are Democrats doin' the same thing? Like, do they have poll watchers? Are they gearing up in a similar way?

Timm: Democrats absolutely will have poll watchers as well. They're looking more into, you know, voter protection efforts. They're, you know, encouraging hotlines like this to try and make sure their voters' ballots count. I was chatting with Tom Perez earlier this week, and I asked him.

I was, like, "How worried are you about these poll watchers that we keep hearing about?" Because that's a big question. Who shows up, how many people show up? And he said, you know, "We've got our own armies of lawyers ready to go to court if we see problems."

But he also made a really interesting point. He said, "You know, millions of people have already voted, and by Election Day, which is sort of that day that we worry about, that powder keg, we worry about tensions bubbling up, millions more people have voted."

So, you know, in Arizona where mail voting is incredibly common, he said, "80% or 90% of people are already gonna have voted." So the poll watchers who are gonna be there are watching 10% of the electorate. A lot less opportunity for problems if ballots have already been counted.

Lee: So when you talked to Tom Perez, the head of the DNC, and he's not overly concerned, it doesn't sound like he's, like, "Oh my God." It doesn't sound like he's panicking here.

Timm: But I mean, they are being ready, you know? I don't think anyone's panicking in the top Dem brass that I talk to. But I do think they're getting ready. You know, Democrats have been very aggressive with going to court over any impediments to the vote.

Lee: So we talked a lot, and we went back to history and looked at '81. And obviously, we're projecting a lot, given the sense of anxiety that a lotta folks feel in this very high-stakes election. Do you get the sense that, are we overhyping this as little bit? Are our concerns kind of just fueled by this moment we're in? Or do you think folks should really be concerned about this intimidation?

Timm: I sure hope our concerns do not pan out. Election reporters just love elections and wand elections to run smoothly and safely. And I think there's fear in darkness, and there's fear when you say there's a rigged election. And when you dig into the rules and you see that there isn't voter fraud, and you know who the poll watchers are and you know what their responsibilities are, you're more empowered. And you're empowered to go and vote.

I mean, people always ask me, "Well, what can I do to make sure my vote counts," 'cause I've been covering this for so long and I've read all the rules. And I say, you know, "Check your voter registration. Double-check your polling place. Double-check your polling place again, and go and vote. And if you have any issues, file that provisional ballot." Knowledge is power.

Lee: Jane Timm, always givin' us nothing but the facts. Thank you very much for joining us.

Timm: Thanks, Trymaine.

Lee: Jane Timm is a political reporter and fact-checker at NBC News. We also heard from Mark Krasovic, history professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio.

Special thanks to listener, Jeff Brown, who sent us an email asking about this consent decree and the laws around voter intimidation. If you have any questions, any at all, story ideas, or if you just want to share some feedback with us, you can reach the team at That's I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Monday.