Will Poll Watchers Make the US Elections Violent?

A polling place on Election Day. Photo courtesy of Paul Weaver.

By Dawn Brancati

President Trump has pledged to mobilize tens of thousands of poll watchers to observe the upcoming US elections, ostensibly to protect against electoral fraud. Many fear that these unofficial poll watchers, known as the “Army for Trump,” will instead undermine the integrity of the elections, intimidate opposition voters, and provoke violence at the polls.

What Are Poll Monitors?

Poll watchers are supposed to deter electoral malfeasance and improve the administration of elections by reporting any misdeeds and administrative errors that they observe. In the US, poll watchers are not allowed to campaign, interact with voters, or interfere in the voting process. In this way, they act like electoral monitors deployed by international agencies, such as the Carter Center and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

There is a key difference, however, between poll watchers and these electoral monitors. Poll watchers have a stake in the outcome of the elections. As a result, there is a potential for poll watchers to falsely accuse opposition candidates of cheating or fail to report acts of malfeasance conducted on behalf of the parties that they represent. The fact that all parties can deploy poll watchers to voting stations is supposed to prevent this from occurring and instill confidence in the results.

How Can They Provoke Violence?

While poll watchers are supposed to deter fraud, they can actually provoke electoral violence. By increasing the incentives of the agents who they hire to commit fraud for them to shirk their responsibilities, electoral monitors can induce political actors to resort to violence, because the agents that they hire to commit violence for them are less likely to shirk given the observability of violence.

In the US, official poll watchers are unlikely to provoke violence in this way since electoral malfeasance is not common in the US in the first place. 

The same cannot be said of the unofficial poll watchers that President Trump has encouraged to patrol the polling stations on Election Day. These poll watchers are likely to be a source of violence themselves. In 1981, armed poll watchers intimidated voters in the New Jersey gubernatorial elections, which resulted in Republicans being barred from using poll watchers for three and a half decades. These poll watchers lack the proper training in how to conduct themselves at the polling stations and are expected to belong to militias, like the one that attempted to remove the Michigan Governor Whitmer from office, and extremist groups with a history of violence.

What Can BE Done to Avert Violence?

Violence could be averted if President Trump were to urge his supporters to leave the poll watching to the experts. This is unlikely. Thus, the safety of the polls next month rests on an increased presence of local police, which are facing their own crisis of confidence in light of recent cases of police aggression and racism among their ranks.

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