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GOP recruits poll monitors from suburban areas to monitor the vote in Democratic cities

Republicans have made suburban areas a recruiting ground for their army of Election Day poll monitors, with plans to deploy some into urban, Democratic epicenters that have remained the focus of conservatives’ erroneous claims of voter fraud.

The strategy has the potential to be uniquely disruptive to voters and election staff this fall, nonpartisan elections experts say, given that the volunteers would be dispatched to monitor areas with different political and demographic makeups than their own — and potentially different protocols for casting and counting ballots.

“In addition to voter intimidation risks, I think that the strategy also poses the potential to be just disruptive to the election process in general,” said Jonathan Diaz, the director of voting advocacy at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

“In the abstract, it’s a good thing to have representatives from every political party and from the campaigns observing election processes. That’s normal,” he said. “The problem comes when you have an effort like this that seems to be aiming to recruit people for the express purpose of uncovering the fraud that doesn’t exist.”

During the 2020 election, many of Republicans’ unfounded voter fraud claims were directed at big urban areas in battleground states — including Detroit, Philadelphia and Milwaukee — where large populations of Black and Latino voters cast their ballots. Despite no widespread fraud being unearthed, the claims have remained a prominent rallying cry from elements of the right who have spent the last four years pre-emptively building the idea that it could occur again in 2024.

The Republican National Committee kicked off in-person recruiting efforts this month for its “Protect the Vote” project — which seeks to deploy a force of 100,000 volunteers and attorneys — with a series of events, mostly in battleground states, designed to sign up and begin training people to be poll monitors. While the RNC won’t send all of its volunteers from suburban areas to urban areas, several of its initial recruiting events say it is a key component of the strategy.

The GOP has so far held events in Oakland County, Michigan, a blue-leaning suburban area outside Detroit; Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a swing suburban area outside Philadelphia; Nassau County, New York, an area on Long Island that has grown redder in down-ballot races; as well as in suburban areas of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta.

All five areas are far whiter and more Republican than nearby major cities, though Oakland, Bucks, Nassau, Mecklenburg and Fulton counties have all gone Democratic in the past several presidential elections.

Plans are also underway to hold events in or around Phoenix and Las Vegas early next week, RNC officials said.

In Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina, poll watchers may serve in any county as long as they are a registered voter in the state. But in Pennsylvania and New York, they must serve only in the county they’re registered to vote in.

“Where we deploy our people is contingent on the state laws,” RNC spokesperson Gates McGavick said. “If a state has rules that you can only be a poll watcher in your county, then obviously we adhere to that.”

Asked at a recent event whether the broader GOP strategy was specifically to recruit election volunteers from suburban areas and dispatch them into cities for the election, RNC Chair Michael Whatley said it was, explaining that “if there’s a statewide ability to do it, then obviously we will deploy those.”

McGavick added that “in states where it makes sense for us to allocate our bodies to bigger cities, then, yes, they might come from areas outside of bigger cities.”

Poll watching is a normal part of elections that both major parties engage in. But nonpartisan election experts have said Republican plans to dispatch monitors from out of town who have been told for years that voter fraud is rampant in Democratic cities could sow chaos.

“When you think about [tens of thousands] of potential poll observers or poll watchers going from a suburban county into a more urban area, ostensibly to monitor for evidence of voter fraud, I would have two major concerns, and the first is the potential for voter intimidation, especially when you consider the racial dynamics of some of these communities and some of the accusations that were made in the wake of the 2020 election,” said Diaz, of the Campaign Legal Center.

The second concern, Diaz and others explained, was that insistent questioning, even if legal and nonthreatening, could still create broad disruptions.

“Even if voters themselves are not intimidated, even if [watchers] don’t deter people from voting, if you have these out-of-county or out-of-precinct poll watchers coming in to second-guess and question every single thing that election officials are doing, that can be hugely disruptive to the administration of elections,” Diaz said.

It would be possible, he said, for those efforts “to contribute to longer lines” or put a “bigger strain on election offices and poll workers who are already underresourced in most parts of the country.”

In 2020, for example, hundreds of mostly white Republican and nonpartisan monitors signed up to be poll challengers at the TCF Center in Detroit, where the vast majority of the poll workers were Black. Witnesses have said in sworn affidavits and interviews that they were uncomfortable with how certain poll challengers were treating the Black workers, arguing that the white poll challengers were harassing workers and accusing them of wrongdoing without evidence.

Representatives for the RNC did not respond to questions about whether parts of their election integrity strategy might present challenges related to race and election operations. Whatley, however, has rejected any notion that the trainings have included any elements of intimidation tactics.

“We work very hard on the front end to make sure that there is no voter intimidation. We are going to respect the process. We’re going to respect the people that work the polls, and we’re going to respect the voters,” Whatley told reporters after a recent RNC event on Long Island.

An opaque, but growing effort

RNC officials declined to provide total recruitment numbers the effort has so far yielded. They have also provided few details about the trainings, have declined to answer questions about whether volunteers are being or will be trained on how to navigate differences in communities and protocols, and have repeatedly not allowed the media to observe training sessions.

Attendees of some sessions who spoke to NBC News have described them as thin on details and not unlike prior guidance local party officials have provided on how to best perform the duties of a poll monitor. Others have said the sessions have been only preliminary recruiting events and that they’ve been told additional in-person and virtual ones with more details will follow.

Until 2018, the RNC’s poll watching plans were significantly limited by a consent decree, which required it to seek court approval to prove that any poll watching work wasn’t discriminatory. That meant the party’s effort in 2020 was its first in decades. And while Republicans attempted to deploy 50,000 volunteers during that cycle, specific organizational and in-person training efforts were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Republican strategists and election workers, meanwhile, said they didn’t see a problem with bringing in volunteers to urban areas to monitor elections, as long as they are following the rules.

A problem, many said, only emerges when unsanctioned groups take it upon themselves to monitor polling places. In 2022, that included right-wing groups like Clean Elections USA in Arizona.

“I don’t know that it’s an issue to have two monitors at every polling place. You know, I think they’re going to find that there isn’t a problem,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican strategist in Arizona.

“I do see a big difference between, say, monitors connected to a party and whatnot, and these roving gangs of armed civilians who think they are lawmen,” he said, referring to Clean Elections USA.

Whatley indicated that the party’s election integrity effort had in fact grown beyond the RNC.

“We do interface with” and “have a lot of conversations with” outside Trump-aligned groups — including the America First Policy Institute — regarding election integrity and poll monitor recruiting, he said following the RNC’s recent event on Long Island.

“Anybody who is going to have an organization that thinks that election integrity is serious, we’re going to be talking to and working with,” he said.

Ashley Hayek, the executive director of America First Works, the advocacy arm of AFPI that is involved in election integrity efforts, said the group is running its own poll monitor recruitment efforts and trainings, as well as encouraging people to attend the trainings run by the RNC.

Asked whether her group’s trainings conveyed to participants how to avoid intimidating voters or disrupting the voting process, Hayek said, “Everybody that has been a part of our program have been upstanding citizens who want to make sure that every citizen is registered to vote and casts one ballot that is counted one time.”

Hayek said AFW plans to recruit volunteers for its own efforts only in the counties those volunteers live in.

Bill Gates, an elected Republican election official in Maricopa County, Arizona, who faced threats over the 2020 and 2022 elections, said none of the national GOP’s strategy bothered him — but said the problem is that it is based on one fundamental lie.

“It really doesn’t matter what the intention is, as long as they’re following the law, as long as they’re exercising the right that they have to observe,” he said of the RNC’s election integrity efforts.

“But to the extent that folks are being told that ‘the 2020 election was stolen, so we need you to participate in this effort,’ — that’s troubling to me,” said Gates, who decided not to run for re-election this year because of the threats he endured in recent electoral cycles. “It’s not the participation in this effort — it’s that they’re being lied to about what happened in 2020.”

Repeatedly debunked claims of widespread election fraud in 2020 have nevertheless been the prominent theme in Whatley’s speeches at the RNC’s election integrity events.

“We cannot have what happened in 2020 ever happen again,” he said at the June 21 event in Westbury, New York.

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