A year ago, Trump campaign senior adviser Justin Clark told a roomful of Republican lawyers in a closed-door meeting in Wisconsin that they had a "huge, huge, huge, huge" opportunity for what he characterized as the campaign's "Election Day Operations" for 2020 — one that had not been available to them for decades: "The consent decree's gone."
This article first appeared in Salon.
Clark was referencing a recently lapsed decades-old court order that had barred GOP operatives from a number of voter-intimidation activities after a 1981 lawsuit, when the Republican National Committee was reprimanded for hiring off-duty law enforcement to intimidate voters at polling places in minority communities. As part of that decision, Republicans had to obtain advance approval for any further "ballot security" measures at the polls.
But a federal judge let the rule, called the "consent decree," expire in 2018. The reasoning: There was no proof that Republicans had recently violated it — a conclusion that some have argued proves that the rule had been working as intended.
The decision set up Election Day in 2020 to be the first in nearly four decades when the RNC will not need to have poll security measures cleared in advance.
President Trump has in recent months repeatedly told supporters to watch the polls "very carefully," a directive that, when combined with the images of militia groups gathered at state capitols this spring, has invoked fears that the president is greenlighting or even encouraging election violence.
"We're going to have everything," Trump said in August, in remarks widely observed as illegal. "We're going to have sheriffs, and we're going to have law enforcement. And we're going to have hopefully U.S. attorneys, and we're going to have everybody and attorney generals."
This was Clark's "huge deal," which the Trump campaign has spun into a not-so-subtle attempt at a show of force intended to deter Democratic turnout ahead of an election where the president's chances appear increasingly dim. Experts and officials have repeated that point in conversations with Salon: The risk is not violence itself, but the fear of it.
A few months after Clark's backroom meeting, the campaign launched "Army for Trump," an official website where supporters can register to pitch in with voting operations, including on Election Day.
Drawing heavily on military language and iconography — alternate URL: "defendyourballot.com" — the site calls on supporters of the commander-in-chief to "fight with the president" and "enlist" in a number of election activities, working alongside "battle tested Team Trump operatives" on the "frontlines" of the campaign.
Trump promoted the site in a Sept. 29 tweet, after the first debate, inviting supporters to become "a Trump Election Poll Watcher." The president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., also recently stumped for the project with a selfie video asking "every able-bodied man and woman" to join the "army for Trump's election security operation."
A Trump campaign email from June read: "You've been identified as one of President Trump's fiercest and most loyal defenders, and according to your donor file, you'd make an excellent addition to the Trump Army." The email offered donors "exclusive" camouflage hats as something of a campaign uniform.
"The President wants YOU and every other member of our exclusive Trump Army to have something to identify yourselves with, and to let everyone know that you are the President's first line of defense when to come to fighting off the Liberal MOB," it said.
Last month, Forbes reported that the #ArmyForTrump Twitter hashtag featured "a large number of posts promoting violence against the president's opposition, in some cases specifically naming Biden and other leading Democrats as enemies." The hashtag, Forbes said, was used in posts attacking "a wide range of targets, including Jewish financier and philanthropist George Soros, Black Lives Matter leaders, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and others."
This week the president tweeted the URL again.
With a number of recent reports detailing plots to capture and kill Democratic officials, the rhetoric raises questions about cause and effect. Still, some experts say fears of Election Day violence are likely overblown. The intended effect, they believe, is simple suppression — to scare people from showing up to begin with.
Corey Goldstone, spokesperson for the Campaign Legal Center, a group that advocates for fair elections, told Salon that chances of Election Day violence, a rarity, are still low this year.
"Five states — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Oregon — have the highest risk of seeing increased militia activity around the elections: everything from demonstrations to violence," Goldstone said, referencing conclusions from a new report from the crisis mapping project ACLED and MilitiaWatch researchers.
He does, however, see a threat to turnout — a typical election-year hurdle, in an atypical year.
"There are strict limits on what the military, law enforcement and poll watchers can do at the polls," said Goldstone. "Voting rights advocates have dealt with these types of thinly veiled efforts to disenfranchise communities, especially Black and brown communities, for decades. Democracy will prevail. It's important that people aren't silenced by the threat of intimidation and that everyone makes a voting plan now."
Turnout has long been a target of Republican operatives, as data shows that when more people vote, the electorate skews Democratic. Trump himself acknowledged this open secret in March, when he said that if voting were expanded, "you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again."
It's the chief reason that Trump and his allies have been pushing misinformation about election fraud for months, especially regarding mail-in ballots, which Republicans fear will boost an already supercharged 2020 turnout. lection law expert Rick Hasen finds the decision baffling.
"It is simply astounding to me that so many people are working so hard to make it more difficult to vote during a pandemic," he told Salon.
Hasen points to heavily Republican South Carolina's post-primary rule change as a particularly maddening example.
"Elected officials and the [state] Republican party didn't mind when a federal court got rid of the signature requirement for absentee voting in the primaries, but they got the Supreme Court to kill it in the general," he said, adding that any rules that increase voting burdens during this public health crisis "are just disingenuous."
"Others are sincere but elevate other, lesser values over the right to vote. It's wrong," he concluded, "and especially during a pandemic."
But Goldstone argues that the majority of states have been trying to make it easier to vote during the pandemic. "Many secretaries of state are recognizing that they should be doing all they can to ensure that citizens can vote safely and securely," he added, while agreeing that some states are going in the opposite direction.
"In Texas for example, Gov. Greg Abbott has gone to extreme lengths to suppress voting, canceling the plans of its most populous counties to offer convenient drop boxes for voters to return their ballots," Goldstone said, referring to Abbott's controversial rule currently working its way through the courts. "Rather than letting the counties go through with their plans, the governor has insisted on only one dropbox per county. This is voter suppression in its simplest form. That's why Campaign Legal Center sued the state, so that Texas voters could fight back."
"Obviously there's historically been suppression and barriers to voting long in place in Texas," Austin Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat, told Salon, adding that Abbott's abrupt crackdown on the drop-off sites offered a particularly sinister and novel example.
Like Goldstone, Adler believes the rumblings of violence have compounded the threat, but made clear that, in his official position, he had seen no evidence of any real and immediate risks.
"In our city we need to be prepared and wary in the event that there is voter intimidation at polling places, but I haven't seen any indications that this is actually going to happen," he said. "But the fear it's designed to create, the suggestion that there will be problems — those are real concerns."
Adler believes that this year, however, voters simply might not be intimidated.
"I'm not sure it will work this time," he said. "People have had four years of frustration, of waiting for this moment, and at this point they're willing to crawl across broken glass to cast their ballot."
That argument seems to apply to Georgia, another state where Republicans have deployed notorious tactics, particularly in the Black community, which saw intense suppressive efforts when Democrat Stacey Abrams, a Black woman, lost the 2018 gubernatorial race by 60,000 votes. That plan appears to be backfiring this year, inspiring a historic turnout.
"The thing is, this is the largest turnout, I think, statewide that I have ever seen. And that's usually a very good sign. It's a good sign for democracy," former UN ambassador Andrew Young recently told Politico. "Whoever they voted for."
Adler, the Austin mayor, also sees hope in the backlash.
"A lot of people want you to think your vote won't count," he said, "but the amount of energy they're putting into those efforts is an indication of how much it does count."