As Election Day draws near, Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is doubling down on inviting the president’s supporters to engage in voter intimidation tactics. In recent months, the campaign has posted advertisements calling on supporters to “enlist today” to join “Trump’s Army” for election security operations.
In addition to retired Navy Seals, Special Operations Forces veterans, sheriffs and off-duty police officers, armed right-wing extremist groups, including QAnon, Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois and so-called militia groups, have all called for a physical presence at polling places. Philadelphia, a stronghold of Democratic support in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania, was specifically targeted by “Trump’s Army,” when the president told his supporters, “bad things happen in Philadelphia.”
Trump’s refusal to condemn violent white supremacist groups, his praise of vigilantes who have been charged with committing murder and his refusal to agree to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election, all contribute to an election environment of fear and intimidation. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Ben Clements, board chairman of Free Speech For People. Here, he discusses the lawsuit his group has filed on behalf of Mi Familia Vota Education Fund and individual plaintiffs, against the Trump administration for voter intimidation in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Ku Klux Klan Act, and the U.S. Constitution.
BEN CLEMENTS: So the lawsuit is on behalf of our organizational client Mi Familia Vota, which is a voter rights education fund that engages in promoting voter registration and supporting voters in elections, along with two individual voters, one from Pennsylvania and one from Texas who have been intimidated in their own desire to vote in this election. And the defendants are Donald Trump, the Attorney General Bill Barr and the acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf. And the basis for the lawsuit is that these defendants together — and with others in the administration — have engaged in a monthlong effort to intimidate voters; to suppress voters through violence, through threats of violence, through sabotaging the mail so that vote by mail becomes more difficult; through discrediting voting by mail through a campaign of disinformation and illegitimizing that; and through threats of sending vigilantes and government officials to those polls to intimidate voters, particularly voters perceived by the defendants to be opposed to Donald Trump.
And the legal basis for the lawsuit is to federal statutes and the United States Constitution — the threat to voter rights violates First Amendment rights under the Constitution, 14th Amendment rights and Fifth Amendment rights. But it also violates two particular statutes. One is the Voter Rights Act, which prohibits anybody, not just government officials, but any person from engaging in intimidation or threats or coercion to impinge on other people’s right to vote — as well as the Ku Klux Klan Act, which prohibits individuals from conspiring together to interfere with other persons’ rights to vote and to have a say in the election. So that’s a big picture basis for the lawsuit.
So the goal of this lawsuit is to get a federal court to issue an injunction declaring that the conduct of these defendants have been engaged in does violate the Voting Rights Act, the Ku Klux Klan Act and the Constitution — and to order the defendants to stop. And we have a series of specific directives that we have asked the court to order the defendants to stop doing. Specifically, we requested that the judge stops to deploy armed federal agents near polling places; to not use federal agents or employees to block delivery of ballots or to interfere in the county in ballots; and to block and interfere with speedy mail, which has obviously been a problem in recent months as a result of some of the actions of Trump and his administration. And, specifically with respect to Donald Trump, we’re asking the court to direct him to stop encouraging his supporters to interfere with voters; to not bring weapons to polling places; and to stop encouraging them to block access to polling places or to otherwise intimidate voters.
SCOTT HARRIS: We’ve had instances recently where armed groups have shown up at polling places during early voting. We’ve had drop boxes for mail-in ballots in Boston burned. And in Texas, Gov. Abbott has ordered 1,000 National Guard troops to be deployed in advance of Election Day. What is possible in terms of your lawsuit to prevent this kind of activity proactively, as opposed to just responding to things that are likely to happen across the country in the days ahead?
BEN CLEMENTS: Well, that is certainly the goal — to try to stop some of this proactively. A lot of the damage has been done already that there’s no question that when we see people lighting dropboxes on fire; wen we see people sending mercenaries to polls with guns to intimidate people; when we see people gathering in large groups in a menacing way next to a line of people waiting to vote — that these actions have been inspired, they’ve been encouraged and they’ve been condoned by Donald Trump. So one of the ways we’re trying to address that is to get the court to order Donald Trump to stop encouraging and condoning this kind of activity. And we do very much have the concern that I believe there was a report from CNN about Homeland Security officials preparing to send federal law enforcement to the polls. And we have a very clear law that the federal government — Donald Trump, Bill Barr, Chad Wolf — may not send armed federal officials to polling places. There’s a law that prohibits it with one very, very narrow exception, which is in the case of responding to armed enemies of the United States at a polling place. And that’s it. This idea that they can send armed officials to monitor polls is unlawful and very threatening and very damaging to our democracy.