Armed Men Once Patrolled the Polls. Will They Reappear in November?

Matt Katz | September 1, 2016 | Katz on Christie

November 7, 1981, CBS News: “There’s a new complication tonight in the still unsettled race for governor of New Jersey…The Democratic National Committee today charged that a group calling itself the National Ballot Security Task Force is a front for the Republican National Committee.”

In the 1981 election for governor of New Jersey, the Republican National Committee spent $75,000 to ostensibly prevent voter fraud by dispatching teams of off-duty police and sheriff’s officers to voting precincts in black, Hispanic and Democratic neighborhoods. The cops, some in uniform, wore arm bands identifying themselves as part of a group called the National Ballot Security Task Force. They had weapons and two-way radios, which provided a governmental veneer. And they hung up posters that read: “WARNING: This area is being patrolled by the National Ballot Security Task Force. It is a crime to falsify a ballot or to violate election laws.”

Citizens with outstanding warrants, owed child support payments or even unpaid traffic tickets worried that voting would get them in trouble. Word spread from Newark to Vineland, and untold numbers of voters stayed far away from the polls. For some of those who did show up, their eligibility was challenged as they sought to enter the voting booths.

The National Ballot Security Task Force changed the outcome of the election, both Democrats and Republicans believe. The Republican, former New Jersey Assembly Speaker Tom Kean Sr., and the Democrat, U.S. Rep. Jim Florio, were neck-and-neck when votes were tallied. It went to a recount.

Florio lost. To this day, he blames the National Ballot Security Task Force. 

“We lost by a number that sticks in my mind — 1,797 votes,” Florio told WNYC. “So there was no doubt in my mind enough people were intimidated not to show up at the polls.”

The case prompted a $10 million federal lawsuit by Democrats against the Republican National Committee and a settlement that restricts, even to this day, what kind of “ballot security” Republicans can conduct.

Nonetheless, Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, seems eager to replicate some of the methods of the National Ballot Security Task Force. He is the first major party nominee in American history to actively question the integrity of the process of the transition of power long before the first vote is cast.

His warnings are vague, but ominous, like: The election is “gonna be rigged.” And: “Republicans better be watching very closely because that election is going to be taken away from us.”

Trump told an almost entirely white crowd last month in Pennsylvania that people in certain places — perhaps parts of urban, heavily minority Philadelphia — might vote over and over again for Hillary Clinton. “The only way they can beat [us] in my opinion, and I mean this 100 percent, is if in certain sections of the state they cheat, okay?” Trump said. “So I hope you people could, sort of, not just vote on the 8th — could go around and look at other polling places and make sure it’s 100 percent fine.” 

What does “watching very closely” mean? And what does “go around and look at other polling places” imply?

That remains unclear, but Trump has specifically called on sheriff’s and police officers to be among those “watching.” He is already signing up “Trump Election Observers” on his web site to “Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!”

Election monitoring is legal and has been going on for years. Often handled by lawyers — and until recently, federal officials — it is intended to track problems, particularly among eligible voters mistakenly denied the right to cast a ballot.

But the ballot patrols in 1981 went further than just monitoring for potential challenges. Using outdated voter rolls in the months before the election, the ballot patrol force sent sample ballots to residents of minority communities. Ballots returned as undeliverable were then compiled into a list that the force used to challenge voters on their residencies when they appeared at the polls. Those agents, acting without any official government backing, were likened to the Gestapo.

Kean did not return a request for an interview about what he knew about the ballot security operations. But he was quoted at the time saying that “the people posting notices and wearing armbands” were not part of his campaign, “not that I know of.”

Other Republicans said at the time that the National Ballot Security Task Force won them the election. ”Those guys would have stolen it from us, and we protected our fannies,” said Richard Richards of the Republican National Committee.

Republicans have a long history of aggressively “watching” the polls, and Trump has more than a passing connection to the 1981 voter suppression case. His late brother-in-law and personal attorney, John Barry, was the lawyer representing the Republicans in the lawsuit that stemmed from the controversy.

And Trump seems to have been prompted to talk about the issue this summer by Roger Stone, a political operative and longtime adviser who worked on the 1981 Kean campaign. Stone, who often pushes conspiracy theories, told WNYC that he had nothing to do with the National Ballot Security Task Force but he is concerned about computer manipulation of voting machines. Days after Stone was heard warning of such criminality on a Breitbart News radio show (“I think we have widespread voter fraud”), Trump began bringing it up on the campaign trail. 

But Lori Minnite, a political scientist at Rutgers University in Camden who studies voter fraud, says there is actually very little cheating in the way that Trump describes it. 

“Are voters trying to game the system, are they impersonating other people?” Minnite said. “And the answer to that is that is very rare in contemporary American elections and it’s not likely going to be a problem at all.”

Moreover, she said, Trump’s assertions about fraud is “very dangerous.”

“I think that sets up a situation in which people don’t see the outcome of the election as legitimate.”

Indeed, the Pew Research Center found that just 11 percent of Trump supporters are “very confident” that their votes will be accurately counted. 

There are isolated incidents of voter fraud. Allegations surfaced just this week of fraud in Paterson, NJ, where a councilman’s dead father may have cast a vote.

But the real threat to voting, Minnite says, are efforts like the National Ballot Security Task Force and the kinds of patrols Trump is encouraging. That suppresses the vote — and could lead to chaos if Trump loses. “I am concerned about Donald Trump’s language because he’s planting an idea in people’s heads that unless he wins there’s election rigging,” she said.

Trump has long leveled charges about voting fraud, saying that dead people voted for President Obama and that illegal immigrants can vote in certain places. His first campaign ad featured an image of a voting place and the words “rigged” superimposed across it.

But Trump’s plans to prevent fraud in this election might not be legal.

The lawsuit filed over the National Ballot Security Task Force ended with a federal consent decree agreed to by Republicans and Democrats. It prevents the Republican National Committee from engaging in activities that suppress the vote, particularly when it comes to minority voters. Armbands at polling places were banned, and the Republican National Committee is required to notify Democrats about what it has planned during elections. The rules, in effect through 2017, have periodically been reinforced when Republicans were alleged to have committed violations around the country, from Louisiana to Ohio.

The consent decree “had a legitimate chilling effect on their engaging in some of these efforts that they purport to maintain are matters of legitimate ballot security,” said Angelo Genova, an attorney who represented Democrats in the case. The settlement is “an effective tool over the last three decades to keep the Republican National Committee’s apparent inclinations in check.”

Genova, who is one of the most prominent election lawyers in the state, said the consent decree could place legal limits on Trump’s efforts to patrol polls on Election Day if the Republican National Committee is in any way funding or backing his ballot security program.

But there are other means of suppression. In 1993 Republican Christine Todd Whitman beat the incumbent Democrat to become governor. Her campaign manager, Ed Rollins, at one point claimed he paid off black ministers to keep their parishioners from voting (under oath, he later recanted that statement).

Rollins now runs a pro-Trump Super PAC. And the losing candidate in that 1993 race was none other than former Gov. Florio, who fell victim to voter suppression a dozen years earlier.

Florio is concerned that the Trump campaign could pull something similar this November.

“Voter suppression seems to be a very strong suit for Republicans in general, and these people, as you say, have a history of this sort of thing, so it’s certainly something to be concerned about,” he said.