US President Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020.
'That is false': Dale fact checks Trump's ballot fraud claim
03:01 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcast “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

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Chris Wallace ended the first presidential debate Tuesday with a softball question, asking the candidates if they would urge their supporters not to engage in “civil unrest” around the election. Joe Biden gave a swift and clear yes. President Donald Trump did not.

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Instead, Trump urged his supporters to “to go into the polls and watch very carefully.” He then unspooled an elaborate conspiracy about Democrats stealing the election, insisting that voters were casting fraudulent ballots and his supporters needed to intervene. And in fact, some already had, swarming a Virginia polling site and requiring election officials to send escorts for voters waiting to cast their ballots.

The pretext of “ballot security” is a rallying cry for other Republican leaders as well. On Thursday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a shocking (but not surprising) proclamation allowing for poll watchers to observe the in-person delivery of mail-in ballots and limiting the number of drop-off locations to one per county. This will add significant burdens on voters across the geographically spread-out state but especially in Harris County, its most populous county – and a Democratic stronghold.

Trump’s call from the debate stage for freelance poll-monitoring dramatically increases the odds of voter intimidation in the 2020 election. But so does the expiration of a 1982 consent decree put in place to prevent Republicans from engaging in voter intimidation schemes. The 2020 election will be the first presidential election in nearly 40 years without those protections – and the case that led to the decree shows exactly why we need it now.

In 1981, New Jersey held an off-year election for state and local offices. On Election Day, Black and Latino residents watched as groups of men with armbands reading “National Ballot Security Task Force” appeared in their neighborhoods, tacking up signs that warned they were on the lookout for people casting fraudulent ballots. The same men, some of them armed, appeared at the polls, asking to see voters’ registration cards and telling them they could not cast a ballot without them. Alarmed Democratic leaders rushed to court, where a judge ruled that the signs were illegal and had to be taken down. (The judge didn’t rule on the men at the polls.)

Despite the adverse ruling, Republicans believed their plan had worked. Initial returns for the governor’s race showed the Republican candidate winning by fewer than 2,000 votes out of 2.3 million cast. The Republicans saw that victory as a sign that the ballot squad had worked. Richard Richards, then chair of the RNC, said they planned to use the task force in other states. “Anyone opposed to ballot security obviously must be supportive of election fraud,” he said to The New York Times, defending the party’s actions. “We would have been cheated out of that race if we hadn’t been alert.”

Democrats, on the other hand, immediately called for a recount and then began digging into this group of men accosting voters. They quickly learned that several of the men were armed off-duty police officers. And one of them was New Jersey elected official Anthony Imperiale.

Imperiale had been a fixture in New Jersey politics since the 1960s, when he got his start in anti-integration politics. By the late 1960s he had founded the North Ward Citizens Committee, a white vigilante group. He eventually moved into politics, spending a decade in elected office. And though he initially denied his involvement, calling it “a prefabricated lie,” he later admitted that he was responsible for organizing the squad in Newark.

Police officers and White vigilantes: these were the same types of people who had, for the better part of a century, intimidated Black voters across the South after the passage of the 15th Amendment, which recognized Black men’s right to vote. It also had a worrisome effect on Democrats’ ability to gather affidavits. As one Democratic official noted to the Times, “The problem is that the type of person who would be intimidated to go and vote is the same person who is not going to sign an affidavit.”

Ultimately, according to the Chicago Tribune, they did find more than 80 people willing to testify to experiencing or witnessing intimidation, vital evidence in the suit they brought against the Republican National Committee. They argued that, since the task force targeted Black and Latino voters, it violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The case was settled a year later with the 1982 consent decree, which barred the party from engaging in acts of intimidation at polling places.

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    The type of action Donald Trump has called for is precisely the type the consent decree – and the Voting Rights Act – were designed to prevent. But in recent years, Republicans have succeeded in demolishing those protections, racing to put in place new modes of voter suppression as quickly as possible. In fact, Donald Trump has already benefited from those efforts: 2016 was, after all, the first presidential election after a Supreme Court decision gutted the Voting Rights Act.

    None of this is good news for the upcoming election. But the history of both the consent decree and the Voting Rights Act tells us something important: Those measures worked, expanding and protecting the franchise while they were in place. And that means that those concerned about voting rights should not despair but redouble their efforts to put those protections back in place.