By now, most people have heard Donald Trump’s fact-free claims that the election is “rigged” against him and his dangerous calls for supporters to act as poll-watchers and thwart alleged voter fraud in “certain areas” — by which he means minority communities in big cities like Philadelphia and Chicago.
Far fewer people are aware that for more than three decades, the Republican National Committee has been under the supervision of a federal court for repeatedly engaging in the same behavior.
Last week, the Democratic National Committee asked a federal judge in New Jersey to hold the RNC in contempt for once again violating the terms of that supervision — known as a consent decree — by coordinating with and supporting the Trump campaign’s efforts to intimidate minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic, and keep them from the polls. If the RNC is found liable, the decree, which is set to expire next year, will be extended for eight more years.
The original decree was issued in 1982 by the U.S. District Court in New Jersey after the RNC allegedly tried to intimidate registered voters in black communities by, among other things, hiring off-duty sheriffs and police officers to stand at polling places displaying their guns and armbands that said “National Ballot Security Task Force.” It barred the national committee and its “agents” from “ballot security activities” that deter qualified minority voters from voting, whether intentionally or not.
In 1987, the court extended the decree, which applies nationwide, after allegations that RNC officials created a voter-challenge list in Louisiana to, as one internal memo put it, “keep the black vote down considerably.” It also required the national committee to get judicial approval before organizing or directing any poll-watching activities. In 2009, following several other episodes of alleged minority-voter intimidation involving the RNC, the decree was again extended for eight years.
In other words, Trump’s abhorrent efforts to keep black and other minority citizens from voting are only the latest example of a long-running Republican strategy. Unsurprisingly, the man behind the New Jersey voter-intimidation case that led to the original decree, Roger Stone, is now one of Trump’s top advisers. On Oct. 23, Stone, who has updated his bag of dirty tricks for the digital era, sent a now-deleted tweet intended to mislead Hillary Clinton supporters by encouraging them to “vote the new way” — by text message.
The RNC says it does not condone this sort of behavior, and it recently warned its members not to violate the decree. At the same time, the committee’s chairman, Reince Priebus, said last month, “I want to make it very clear that the RNC is in full coordination with the Trump campaign,” and that “we remain very much involved and together in all levels in making these decisions of how best to run the operation across the country.”
Of course, the claims of voter fraud are themselves fraudulent; in-person voter fraud essentially never happens, as study after study has confirmed. As the federal court in New Jersey said in 2009, voter intimidation of the type the Trump campaign is now encouraging, and in which the RNC has engaged, “presents an ongoing threat to the participation of minority individuals in the political process, and continues to pose a far greater danger to the integrity of that process than the type of voter fraud the RNC is prevented from addressing by the decree.”
The danger is exacerbated now that the Justice Department is sending only a fraction of the 32,000 federal election observers it deployed around the country in 2012 to help deter intimidation tactics. This cutback is the direct result of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, which had required states and jurisdictions with the worst histories of voter discrimination to get preapproval from federal courts before making any changes to their voting laws.
Republicans have long known that their chances of winning go up when the number of voters — and especially minority voters — goes down. The party’s embrace of Trump, even as he openly urges “everybody to go out and watch” polling places because “we don’t want this election stolen from us” is another manifestation of its shameful record on voter suppression.