Gabrielle Gray is a little busy these days. The 26-year-old doctoral student in political science at Howard University is coordinating the school’s 2016 Presidential General Election Voter Protection Project. It involves putting together teams of students from HBCUs around the nation to keep voters of color from being intimidated at the polls on Election Day.
“I have a background in education. It’s one thing to sit in classes to learn about voter suppression, and it’s another thing to act against it,” says Gray, who is also president of the Howard University Graduate Political Science Association.
She has been concerned by calls from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for his supporters to “watch” polling places in cities with large populations of people of color, including Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia. On Oct. 22, in a speech in Gettysburg, Pa., Trump told the audience that voter fraud exists and that “the system is totally rigged and broken.”
“The rhetoric Trump is saying is what my grandparents went through,” Gray says, “so my reason for organizing is to make sure blacks continue to be protected and their rights are protected.”
HUGPSA is partnering with the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation and the Black Youth Vote! Network on a smorgasbord of issues, including registering students to vote, making sure they have access to absentee ballots and talking to them about how to avoid voter suppressions. Gray says money is being raised to send students from Howard to Ohio, northern Virginia and Maryland to monitor polls on Election Day, and also to do some exit polling.
“From Howard, we’re doing training on how to interact with people and how to avoid confrontation … and there’ll be a command center set up where lawyers, faculty and students will take calls reporting voter suppression,” Gray says.
Sindy Benavides at the Washington, D.C-based League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, says the organization has been hearing worries from Latino citizens over possible intimidation of voters as well.
“We have heard concerns from individuals … when they were talking with their friends or families or partners while we were registering them to vote,” Benavides says. “The other major flag for us is, individuals who have limited English but are U.S. citizens and eligible to vote and registered who are concerned that they would not be allowed to bring someone with them to help them.”
Benavides says that LULAC is partnering with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, and there will be bilingual call centers (888-VE-Y-VOTA) where people can call with questions such as the location of their polling place or to report problems at the polls. In 2012 there were also concerns, and more than 3,000 people called on Election Day alone. This year, organizers are expecting a higher volume. LULAC is also offering voters rides to polls if needed and training the drivers on basic knowledge of one's rights while voting.
“In case they see voter intimidation happening or if they see supporters from whichever party screaming at voters or telling them to go back home to their country, we want to make sure our voters feel protected and safe,” Benavides explains. “One of the other things we are concerned with are long lines, especially for our community that’s very hardworking who might have to work far away [from the polls].”
In fact, long lines are the most frequent issue Latino voters experience at the polls, according to a poll (pdf) NALEO released Monday. NALEO’s educational fund sent a letter to the Department of Justice calling for “urgent action in light of recent candidate comments encouraging voter intimidation at the polls this year.” NALEO is asking the DOJ to send poll monitors to rural and urban areas, as well as to places where there have been recent increases in foreign and Puerto Rican-born populations.
In North Carolina, NAACP President the Rev. William Barber II says the civil rights organization has a multipronged approach to attempted voter suppression in that battleground state. The NAACP has sent a letter indicating an intent to sue several boards of election that it says are misusing the voter-challenge provisions, including attempts to remove people who have previously cast ballots from voter rolls.
It is also demanding that the state Board of Elections open additional early-voting sites, extend hours and, if necessary, provide mobile units in the 38 counties devastated by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. It is dispensing hundreds of thousands of copies of a nonpartisan voter guide, coordinating more than 2,000 volunteers to serve as poll monitors, and there is a call-in number, 866-OUR-VOTE, staffed by lawyers, that people with concerns can call for help. Barber has choice words about Trump’s calls for monitoring.
“We certainly think it is cynical and another form of fearmongering. It was the Republican extremists that first began all of this conversation about fraud after the election of Obama,” Barber says.
He adds that NAACP poll watchers are training people so that they know what to do if there is trouble. Voters will know that a polling place can’t be closed if people are already in line, that they shouldn’t leave a line even if someone tells them to do so. Barber says voters should know that if someone begins to harass them, they should pull out a cellphone and call the hotline.
“You cannot remember when you had this much conversation about fraud before Obama’s election, and when he won … all of a sudden there’s this fraud. It’s so race-driven, it’s not funny,” Barber says.“We know their claim of fraud is fraudulent itself. We know it is nothing, and it’s strange to us that the very party that has attempted to suppress the vote is now trying to project that on other people.”
In Philadelphia, one of the cities where Trump’s supporters have been urged to watch for election fraud, Al Schmidt is the sole Republican among the three city commissioners who run the election. He says there’s been no uptick in requests to be poll watchers.
“It’s been pretty consistent with other presidential elections. There’s a little bit of a disconnect between the national-level chatter and what we’re seeing on the ground,” Schmidt says. He says that fraud is always a concern, particularly with a presidential election, partly because people feel very passionately about the outcome, but anyone thinking they can just show up and keep an eye on elections in Philadelphia has the wrong idea.
“The only people permitted in polling places in Philadelphia or in Pennsylvania are people registered in that county. You have to be a registered voter in that county and receive a poll-watchers certificate, or an active voter or be one of the election-board workers. No one else is allowed inside the polling place on Election Day,” Schmidt explains.
He adds that there has been some voter fraud there, and that the district attorney has put together an election task force that has resulted in around 10 indictments and eight guilty pleas over the past two years, but he says fraud is not occurring in a widespread or systematic way.
“It is important that people realize voter fraud does occur, but it is not rampant,” Schmidt says.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University says on the front page of its website that voter fraud is “vanishingly rare” and doesn’t happen on a scale even close to that necessary to “rig” an election. Nicole Austin-Hillery, director of its Washington office, says that it is important for people to know that election officials are well-equipped and democracy actually works.
“However, to put out a call for poll watchers and Election Day observers when there is no semblance or inkling or a problem really is akin to fearmongering,” Austin-Hillery says, noting that the think tank/legal-advocacy organization works with the DOJ and other organizations to make sure that if there are issues on Election Day, it is prepared to offer assistance. “It doesn’t instill confidence in voters and it could be an intimidation factor.”
Austin-Hillery says that Trump’s phrasing could cause problems for many voting groups, including minorities, the elderly and students, and that asking supporters to pay special attention to areas where vulnerable voters are could cause a particular problem.
“That’s unacceptable. It goes against our democracy,” Austin-Hillery says. “No candidate should be … encouraging poll watchers in a way that might intimidate voters who have been members of a vulnerable population in this country.”
Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.