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Democrats Worry GOP Efforts To Recruit Poll Watchers May Lead To Voter Intimidation

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Republican Party is enlisting up to 50,000 poll watchers to be on the lookout for Election Day problems. Democrats say the effort could lead to voter intimidation. Some election experts worry that civil unrest on the nation's streets will also spread to the polls. As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, this is all raising anxiety over an already chaotic election.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: All it took was a group of cheering Trump supporters outside an early voting site in Fairfax County, Va., to set off waves of alarm not only at the polling site, but on social media.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Four more years. Four more years. Four more years.

FESSLER: The crowd waved flags and campaign signs as they chanted. Voters standing in line nearby weren't blocked from voting. But Virginia's attorney general, Mark Herring, said some clearly felt threatened. He issued an opinion reminding everyone that there are federal and state laws against voter intimidation.

MARK HERRING: I wanted Virginians to know that they can go vote and have confidence that they can do it safely and comfortably without fearing for their safety or well-being.

FESSLER: Although in the Fairfax case, Herring, a Democrat, said it wasn't clear that any laws were broken. The rally occurred outside a 40-foot buffer zone. Still, the incident was a sign of how fraught this year's elections have become, with both sides wary about possible disruptions and even violence. Republicans say people overreacted in the Fairfax case, but Democrats point to President Trump's repeated calls for supporters to go to the polls to stop Democrats from, quote, "stealing the election" and to this recent militant-sounding appeal from Donald Trump Jr.

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DONALD TRUMP JR: We need every able-bodied man, woman to join army for Trump's election security operation at defendyourballot.com.

FESSLER: Republicans announced months ago that they planned to recruit thousands of poll watchers, but RNC chief counsel Justin Riemer told NPR their main job will be looking for any irregularities that might be used as evidence in later legal challenges.

JUSTIN RIEMER: The Democrats would say that we are there to suppress the vote. That is absolutely not the case. I can assure you that that is not why we have volunteers and attorneys participating in this process.

FESSLER: And indeed, there are very specific rules governing poll watching. Most states allow the political parties and campaigns to appoint people to sit inside polling sites to monitor voting, but they're strictly prohibited from interfering with voters. It's the self-appointed poll watchers - those who might show up at the polls unannounced - that have some people more worried.

JOSH HORWITZ: We're not trying to cause panic or anything like that.

FESSLER: Josh Horwitz runs the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and says the increased presence of armed militia at protests in Virginia and elsewhere is clearly cause for concern or at least preparation.

HORWITZ: All we're asking is that local election officials and state officials do what they can in the remaining month to best protect their polling places and the integrity of their elections.

FESSLER: He notes that most states don't have specific laws prohibiting guns at polling sites, unless they're at places like schools. At the very least, his group wants poll workers to get better training on what to do in case there's a problem. Most election officials try first to de-escalate potential conflicts. In Fairfax, they asked the Trump supporters to move back and not block voters' access. In more serious cases, they might call the police.

KRISTEN CLARKE: In some respects, this could all prove to be a lot of bluster.

FESSLER: Kristen Clarke is president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Her group runs something called Election Protection, a national network of lawyers on call to help voters with problems at the polls. Clarke notes that in the past, threats by vigilantes that they would come to voting sites have often failed to materialize.

CLARKE: This is a pattern and practice that we have seen throughout the years - these wild exaggerations and bold proclamations that often fall flat in the end but are intended to have a particular effect.

FESSLER: Which she says is to discourage people from coming to the polls. She thinks voters shouldn't be too worried, just prepared to report problems if they do occur.

Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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