Donald Trump.  Picture: REUTERS
Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS

Philadelphia — Poll watchers are common in US elections. Though rules vary by state, the practice mostly involves Democrats and Republicans trained by their respective parties or outside groups to observe their local polling places and report any violations of election law to officials. In most states observers must have credentials.

But Donald Trump’s call for his mostly white supporters to keep an eye on what he calls "other communities" has for many African-Americans raised the spectre of the hundreds of years in which blacks were denied the franchise or intimidated out of voting.

By stoking unfounded claims of voter fraud and asking supporters to sign up on his website to be poll monitors or to strike out on their own, some fear he may be setting the stage for disruption or violence on election day.

A group affiliated with Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, plans to send volunteers to nine cities with high minority populations, including Philadelphia, to monitor polling places on November 8.

The Huffington Post reported that the group had "created an official-looking badge for its volunteers to wear, and its volunteers planned to videotape voters and conduct fake ‘exit polls’".

Stone said he had ordered the proposals about badges and filming to be abandoned. He said the effort was not co-ordinated with the Trump campaign but that he was conducting exit polling in Democrat-controlled areas so that the campaign could use the results to contest the election’s outcome, which Trump has refused to say he will unequivocally accept.

Nearly 2,500 people had signed up as of Monday.

Democrats in Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Ohio this week sued the Trump campaign, Republican state parties and Stone’s group for allegedly violating the Voting Rights Act and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.

Trump’s claims that the election will be stolen have led to a surge in Republican applications to monitor polls from Arizona to Virginia to Texas, according to the Washington Times. But it has also put the Republican National Committee (RNC) in a tight spot.

Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway recently told a Washington Post reporter that she was working with the RNC to "monitor precincts around the country". She later said that she was mistaken.

But last week Democrats asked a federal judge to block the RNC from co-ordinating with the Trump campaign, and called for the extension of a 1982 consent decree that barred it from "undertaking any ballot security activities in polling places or election districts where the racial or ethnic composition of such districts is a factor in the decision to conduct, or the actual conduct of, such activities there".

The ruling was issued after Democrats sued the RNC for sending armed off-duty police officers to minority polling places in New Jersey wearing armbands identifying them as the "Ballot Security Task Force".

The lawyer who defended the RNC in that 1982 case was John J Barry, Trump’s late brother-in-law.

In a statement, RNC spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said the RNC "strictly abides by the consent decree and does not recruit poll watchers or take any other action that might violate it. We do not co-ordinate with any campaigns in any poll watching efforts they may have."

The ruling will expire next year if it is not extended.

© The Financial Times Limited 2016

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