Trump Can’t Send Troops to the Polls, but He Really Wants To

Federal Protections Officers, Portland
Will voters be confronted by federal protections officers on Election Day 2020? Photo credit: © Imagespace via ZUMA Wire)
Reading Time: 3 minutesProtecting Out Vote 2020

While Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was addressing the nation during the final night of the Democratic National Convention, President Donald Trump announced to Sean Hannity on Fox News that he was considering sending law enforcement to polling places on Election Day to prevent voter “fraud.”

“We’re going to have everything,” Trump said. “We’re going to have sheriffs and law enforcement and … hopefully, US attorneys, and we’re going to have everybody, and attorney generals, but it’s very hard.”

While Trump insists that his intention is to prevent election fraud, critics see it as an attempt to frighten voters — especially African Americans and other minorities — away from the polls. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed Trump’s comments as nothing more than a scare tactic “designed to suppress the vote.”

It is common to have poll watchers on Election Day; however, federal law explicitly prohibits voter intimidation. Critics condemn Trump’s proposal as a blatant abuse of power and point to Section II(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which states that “no person … shall intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote.” 

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that Trump’s comments reflected an “old and familiar tactic pulled right from the Jim Crow playbook and often specifically targeted at Black voters and voters of color.”

In Florida, a state that President Trump has hailed for its election administration, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) minimized Trump’s comments, noting that his state plans to have civilian volunteers monitoring the polls. However, Trump’s threats of deploying armed forces, especially to polling places, have caused a growing concern among lawmakers in Washington.

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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley assured lawmakers that he “will not follow an unlawful order.” In response to questions from Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), a former intelligence official, and Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), a former Navy pilot, following a July House Armed Services Committee hearing, Milley made clear that the military does not have a role to play in US elections. 

“We follow the rule of law and have done so with regard to past elections, and will continue to do so in the future,” Milley wrote. “I do not see the U.S. Military as part of this process; this is the responsibility of Congress, the Supreme Court, and components of the Executive Branch.”

Even if Trump were to deploy troops to monitor voting, this order would run counter to two federal laws aimed at preventing voter intimidation. Section 18 of US Code 592 prohibits the military from standing guard outside polling places. Likewise, Section 18 of US Code 595 prohibits federal and state government employees from using their position “for the purpose of interfering with, or affecting, the nomination or the election of any candidate for the office of President.” 

“This voter suppression scheme is intended to intimidate voters and cause a chilling effect on the electorate,” Clarke said. “Such a deployment would likely run afoul of laws that prohibit intimidation of voters.”


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Tony Webster / Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and jtu / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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