Day 6

With a landmark court order expired, a 1981 campaign of voter suppression might point to trouble in 2020

The expiration of a landmark 1982 federal court order, known as a consent decree, which barred political parties from engaging in tactics that could suppress votes or intimidate voters, has some political experts worried those tactics might be on their way back.

After poll observers blocked and intimidated voters, a consent decree barred similar tactics — until 2018

A landmark 1982 court order barring poll observers from engaging in tactics designed to intimidate voters at polling locations expired in 2018. That has some political experts worried. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

When New Jersey voters went to the polls to elect their governor in 1981, they encountered a brazen campaign of voter intimidation. 

Armed men calling themselves the National Ballot Security Task Force patrolled polling locations and questioned voters heading in to cast ballots. Black and Latino voters, in particular, were targeted. 

Now, the expiration of a landmark 1982 federal court order, known as a consent decree, which barred political parties from engaging in tactics that could suppress votes or intimidate voters, has some political experts worried those tactics might be on their way back.

"This will be the first presidential election run in the United States [since 1980] without that consent decree," said Mark Krasovic, a history and American studies professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"We've essentially lost this particular legal recourse if some of these activities were to return this year."

The 1981 events in New Jersey were spearheaded by the state and national Republican parties, and were the subject of a lawsuit launched by Democrats the following year. 

It resulted in the consent decree agreed to by Republicans which expired nearly three years ago, in Jan. 2018.

The Donald Trump campaign has applauded the court's decision to let the 1982 consent decree expire, according to reports. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump has long made spurious claims about voter fraud and has encouraged his supporters to monitor voting at polling locations during the November election. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported the RNC's plans to recruit and train 50,000 volunteer poll watchers, leading to concerns about voter intimidation.

While state laws allow for party-affiliated poll observers, rules limit what they can do. For example, they may monitor the process, but cannot speak directly to voters.

"The fear is that it will go beyond the neutral process that is outlined in the law," said David Canon, professor and department chair in American politics at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"The problem, I think, in situations like this, is that the poll workers are often not that well trained themselves. They may not know what the state law is, what it requires."

Suppression and vote caging

During the 1981 New Jersey gubernational election, as part of a program known as Commitment 81, poll observers were able to target voters they deemed "worthy of challenge" through an approach known as vote caging. 

"They sent letters to particular cities and neighbourhoods," Krasovic explained. "The letters were marked 'return to sender,' and any of those letters that were then returned to Commitment 81, those names were then added to this challenge list."

Then, "Commitment 81 hired largely off-duty police officers and sheriff's deputies to then accompany poll monitors with these challenge lists at polling places," he added.

The observers sported royal blue armbands, identifying themselves as part of the so-called National Ballot Security Task Force.

"They stopped and questioned prospective voters, asked for registration cards and other forms of I.D. and turned voters away if they would not or could not produce such identification," Krasovic said.

Observers also physically blocked entry to polling locations and threatened violence in some cases, he added.

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'There is certainly talk in the air'

Democrats attempted to renew the consent decree following the 2016 presidential election, arguing the RNC and Roger Stone — who spearheaded a pro-Trump movement called Stop the Steal that year — engaged in questionable practices.

Newark-based U.S. District Court Judge John Michael Vazquez ruled that Democrats provided inadequate evidence to prove wrongdoing, however, and Republicans have praised the decision.

University of Wisconsin-Madison American politics professor David Canon says that while there's no guarantee the consent decree's expiry will lead to serious vote supression this year, it does strip rules meant to protect voters. (Brandon Bell/Reuters)

With respect to this year's election, RNC spokesperson Mandi Merritt told Day 6 in a statement that all poll watchers will receive "rigorous" training to ensure they follow state laws. She adds that while observers are tasked with watching for fraud and irregularities, "it's just as much about getting out the vote."

Canon says that though the decree has expired, increased targeting of voters isn't necessarily going to take place.

"I don't think it means that there's a guarantee that we're going to see a lot more voter intimidation than we otherwise would have seen, because under state law, you still aren't allowed to intimidate voters," said Canon, adding the decree did have the effect of banning tactics, including deliberately misleading voters about polling locations and days, that are not covered by state laws.

Krasovic, is less optimistic, however. 

"Trump himself, to [Fox News host] Sean Hannity, has suggested that law enforcement officers be deployed to polling sites," he said.

"So there is certainly talk in the air. There's certainly discourse that has invoked New Jersey 1981 and suggested these sorts of deployments."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Pedro Sanchez. 

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