State and local officials across the country are scrambling to respond to the potential for voter intimidation and violence on Election Day in the wake of President Donald Trump’s calls during Tuesday’s debate for his supporters to “go into the polls.”
a man holding a sign: STAMFORD, CONNECTICUT - AUGUST 11: A woman drops her Connecticut 2020 presidential primary ballot at a secure ballot drop box at a Stamford library on August 11, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont signed an executive order allowing all registered voters to vote absentee in the August 11, 2020 primary. Connecticut has also experienced fallout from the recent tropical storm, which knocked out power to half of the state at its peak. President Trump has been critical of the absentee ballot process saying it contributes to voter fraud. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Trump’s comments have energized far-right groups and sparked new warnings from state election officials about the potential for voter intimidation and conflict that could create chaos on Election Day. It’s one more factor threatening to disrupt an election that Trump has been claiming for months — without evidence — will be fraudulent if he is not declared the winner.

“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it,” Trump said when asked if he would tell his supporters to stay calm and not engage in civil unrest around the election.

State officials are hitting back at the President over his remarks and engaging with local law enforcement and others who have authority to maintain order at voting locations to ensure they are prepared.

“Trump also told ‘his supporters’ to ‘go into the polls and watch very carefully.’ But he wasn’t talking about poll watching. He was talking about voter intimidation,” Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford, a Democrat, tweeted. “FYI — voter intimidation is illegal in Nevada. Believe me when I say it: You do it and you will be prosecuted.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, also a Democrat, posted a video to Twitter on Wednesday evening saying the state would prosecute voter intimidation. “We’re not going to let Donald Trump undermine our election,” Healey said. “It’s a crime to intimidate a voter or to obstruct the vote, to interfere with the election, and we will prosecute.”

There are certain laws and safeguards in place surrounding how individuals and campaigns can be official poll watchers in most states. The rules vary by state, and many include official registration and how many people from each party can watch at a specific location. But experts warn that Trump’s remarks will fuel issues with “unofficial” poll watchers — people who show up outside polling locations beyond the reach of those rules and intimidate voters.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, another Democrat, told CNN on Thursday that Minnesota’s laws limited poll watchers to one per campaign, but he was concerned that more people would nevertheless arrive to try to observe on Election Day.

“I’m more worried about what happens outside the polling place to those disappointed supporters of any candidate who show up thinking they’re going to be allowed access and finding out they won’t be,” Simon said.

Election officials across the country have begun preparing for the worst by getting in contact with local law enforcement and others with authority to maintain order, said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research.

“I’m very concerned that armies of poll watchers might interfere with the election, they might not be adequately trained or they could be viewed as intimidating,” Becker told CNN. “Election officials are having to think about these things more than ever.”

Inside polling places, some states limit the number of observers per campaign, but in other states, anyone can watch. In Wisconsin, for instance, anyone can be an election observer so long as they sign in, stay in a “designated observer area” and do not create a disturbance, said Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

“The guiding principle is that activities of election observers cannot cause disturbance at the polling place,” Magney said. “The observers can’t be up in everyone’s business or interfering. If an observer has some information about the voter’s qualification, like the person is a convicted felon, they can say, ‘I want to challenge this voter.’ But they have to have personal knowledge.”

The Trump campaign defended the President’s remarks in a statement to CNN.

“Poll watchers are critical to ensuring the fairness of any election, and President Trump’s volunteer poll watchers will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally, all valid ballots are counted, and all Democrat rule breaking is called out,” campaign spokeswoman Thea McDonald said.