Donald Trump’s call to his supporters to “guard” and “watch” ballot counting in cities with large Black populations has raised alarms among elections officials and voting rights advocates bracing for more threats to elections fuelled by his bogus narrative of widespread fraud.
During a rally in Ankeny, Iowa on Saturday, the leading candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination for president justified his demands to “go into” cities with the same baseless allegations that surrounding the 2020 presidential election.
He falsely claimed that “they cheated like hell, they know it, and you’ll never find out all the ways but we don’t need all the ways,” adding that the “most important part of what’s coming up is to guard the vote.”
“The most important part of what’s coming up is to guard the vote, and you should go into Detroit, and you should go into Philadelphia, and you should go into some of these places – Atlanta – and you should go into some of these places, and we gotta watch those votes when they come in,” he said.
He then falsely claimed that ballots are “shoved around in wheelbarrows and dumped on the floor”.
“We’re like a third-world nation, a third-world nation, and we can’t let it happen,” he added.
Philadelphia’s top elections official criticised his comments, warning that his statements will be used to “sow doubt” about election results – months before a single ballot is even cast.
“This is nothing new, Trump says these things before every election, and I expect we will hear more of this over the next year,” said City Commissioner Lisa Deeley. “I can only assume it is to try and sow doubt about the validity of the election results.”
Mr Trump launched a similar campaign relying on false characterisations of the election process and conspiracy theories to cast doubt on the legitimacy of elections in the months before 2016 and 2020 elections. Those claims have animated Republican attempts to challenge results and craft legislation to do what Mr Trump failed to do in the courts.
The persistent lie that the election was stolen from him fuelled violence at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, sustained partisan investigations intended to reverse the outcomes in states he lost, inspired Republican-led legislation in nearly every state to change how elections are run, and has formed the basis of his 2024 campaign.
A legal campaign to invalidate ballots and overturn election results in states that he lost in 2020 centered on a handful of counties with large populations of Black and Latino voters. He faces criminal charges in Atlanta connected to intimidating Black election workers, part of a spawling indictment alleging a multi-state scheme to overturn election results.
“I rarely give Trump oxygen but when he continues to double down on threats to Black voters by telling his extremist disciples to ‘guard’ the vote in cities like Detroit, Philadelphia [and] Atlanta, we must take note,” wrote Janai Nelson, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund.
“This is lawless intimidation [and] obstruction of the right to vote,” she added.
Former US attorney Joyce Vance said that Mr Trump “might just as well have said ‘watch Black voters’ because that’s clearly what he meant.”
Today, I released the following statement regarding former President Trump’s calls in Ankeny, Iowa for his supporters to 'guard the vote' in Philadelphia. pic.twitter.com/RsuicuUrfo
— Lisa Deeley (@DeeleyforPhilly) December 3, 2023
A third of local election officials nationwide have faced threats, intimidation or abuse, according to an April survey by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. More than half are concerned for the safety of their colleagues, while roughly 30 per cent reported personally being abused, harassed or threatened because of their job.
“Unlike Republicans’ previous vague warnings about potential voter fraud, the Big Lie named names. It cast election officials as masterminds in a made-up crime against the state,” according to the report. “The wave of threats won’t magically disappear. What Trump set loose, many subsidiary politicians have rushed in to exploit.”
Since the 2020 presidential election, 40 per cent of chief local election officials are new to the job in western US states, covering an area with more than 76 million Americans, according to democracy advocacy group Issue One.
More than 160 chief local election officials in those states have left their positions since November 2020, the group found.
Threat-fuelled turnover rates “signify a crisis in our democracy,” according to Issue One CEO Nick Penniman. “Election after election, local officials rise to the occasion to administer free and fair elections that are safe and secure. Now is the time for policymakers and lawmakers to stand with them.”
The false claim that widespread fraud manipulated the outcome or “stole” the election from Mr Trump has been shot down by his own counsel, administration officials and US Department of Justice officials, as well as judges and election officials across the country.
Mr Trump is criminally charged in Georgia and at the federal level for his alleged attempts to unlawfully overturn election results. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.