Imagine voting on Nov. 8 under the watchful gaze of, say, a posse of poll watchers, assault-style rifles slung over their shoulders, “Make America Great Again” hats perched on their heads.
Sounds farfetched? Maybe in California. But in swing states such as Ohio and North Carolina, local officials are bracing as Donald Trump, his campaign sputtering, has called on his troops to deter what he claims is a “rigged” election. “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before Election Day,” he tweeted Monday, without a shred of evidence. “Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naive!”
“Whining,” President Barack Obama called Trump’s outburst, and it’s an apt description. But in a campaign rife with demagoguery, Trump’s sour grapes mark a new, and dangerous low.
Among other things, he has encouraged supporters to become self-appointed poll monitors, hinting that urban neighborhoods in particular might be prone to cheating. “Go down to certain areas,” he said at a rally last month in rural Pennsylvania, “and watch and study to make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.”
In another country, talk like this would be sedition. Trump knows his calls for vigilantism invite confrontation.
Voter fraud is exceedingly rare, as researchers have found over and over. One study, done two years ago by a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in election administration, found just 31 credible claims in more than 1 billion ballots cast over the past 16 years. Because polling places are managed at the local level, “rigging” a national election is nearly impossible. That’s a truth Americans need to hear.
If more Republican leaders don’t speak up to denounce Trump’s rhetoric, and forcefully, the unthinkable may be more possible – bloodshed at the polls that would tragically end our nation’s tradition of peaceful transfer of power. At most risk are voters in states with permissive gun laws. There, hanging out near a polling place with a rifle would likely fall into the legal gray area between state open-carry laws and federal laws against voter intimidation.
Already, two Trump supporters made headlines by bringing their guns to stand outside a Democratic campaign office in Virginia. And it’s not as if there aren’t two sides willing to tangle: Over the weekend, a Republican headquarters in North Carolina was firebombed. The perpetrators also scrawled a swastika and the words “Nazi Republicans leave town or else” on an adjacent building.
Trump was quick to blame the “animals” backing Hillary Clinton. In a tour of the site on Tuesday, Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, characterized the attack as one on our political system and, therefore, “an attack on us all.” He was right. It was an attack on democracy.
But given a chance to douse the mounting rage as election day approaches, Pence fanned the flame. Without evidence, he said there have been “proven instances of voter fraud” and urged people to get involved in a “respectful way” to ensure “accountability” at the polls.
Others in the GOP have gone further. Peter Goldberg, an RNC committeeman from Alaska, told Politico that he believes “there are elements that will try to rig the election.” More than 40 percent of voters now say the election could be “stolen” from the Republican nominee because of widespread fraud, according to a poll from Politico. That includes 73 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has remained conspicuously quiet, as has Senate leader Mitch McConnell. Rep. Paul Ryan has soft-pedaled, saying he is “fully confident” in the nation’s elections system. Their tepid responses aren’t even close to good enough.