When debate moderator Chris Wallace asked President Donald Trump last night whether he would urge his supporters “not to engage in any civil unrest” while ballots are being counted and to “not declare victory until the election has been independently certified,” the president responded with a very different appeal to his base.

“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” he said. “They’re called ‘poll watchers.’ It’s a very safe, very nice thing.”

In case anyone doubted the president’s sincerity, the following day Trump tweeted out another exhortation:

For longtime political observers in California, this call for on-site polling place watching and the president’s warning that “bad things happen” at polling places in large cities is a throwback to November 1988.

That was the last notable time that Republicans in California tried putting self-described guardians of the franchise to work on Election Day. It didn’t go well.

In the 1988 general election, Orange County Republican Assemblyman Curt Pringle and the county GOP hired uniformed guards to canvas polling places in heavily Latino neighborhoods of Santa Ana in search of signs of illegal voting. They also carried signs, written in both Spanish and English, reminding anyone entering the precinct that only citizens were allowed to vote.

At the time, CalMatters’ editor-in-chief, Dave Lesher, was a political reporter in Orange County for the Los Angeles Times. He said the GOP’s fear of undocumented immigrants voting them out of power was borne of the massive demographic transition that was then sweeping the state.

“The 1980s was when California’s big Latino surge happened,” he said. “Especially in Orange County, you had all these white, World War Two veteran, blue collar, middle class neighborhoods changing dramatically in one decade.”

The poll guard incident was part of the backlash to those changes. Six years later, when California Republican Assemblyman Dick Mountjoy from nearby Monrovia spearheaded Proposition 187 — a measure to deny non-emergency public services to undocumented immigrants — that was part of the backlash, too. State voters approved it, but the courts blocked it from taking effect. 

When candidate Trump in 2016 urged his supporters to serve as voter fraud lookouts, many voters in and around Santa Ana interpreted it less an exercise of civic-mindedness and more like racist voter intimidation.

From the L.A. Times:

“I remember thinking, ‘Really?’ This is something you could have easily imagined in other parts of the country,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., who back then was teaching political science in Orange County. “This was a clear attempt to intimidate Latinos.”

This was only six years after a federal judge imposed what would become a 35-year ban on the Republican National Committee from engaging in ostensible “voter security” measures without clearing the plan with a court. That came after the organization hired off-duty policemen, donned them with “National Ballot Security Task Force” armbands and sent them to patrol Black and Latino neighborhoods in New Jersey. 

But that consent decree did not apply to individual candidates, such as Pringle, or to county party organizations like the OCGOP.

Orange County’s Republican party chair said after the 1988 election that its measures were prompted by rumors that Democrats were planning to bus in undocumented immigrants to cast illegal votes and swing the local Assembly election to the Democrat.

(The unsubstantiated “busloads of illegal voters” meme is one that various supporters of President Trump still occasionally resurrect.) 

Pringle ended up winning his election — and eventually became speaker of the California Assembly. But ultimately the episode backfired.

“Our goal is to cover every polling place in the country with people like you.”

Trump campaign VIDEO

The following year, state legislators passed a law making it a felony to post guards at polling places without the permission of local election officials. A few months later, Pringle and the Orange County GOP also settled a lawsuit, admitting to no wrongdoing but paying $400,000 to five Latino voters who took them to court for alleged civil rights violations. 

And the incident did not endear the GOP brand to California’s fastest-growing demographic group.

In 2018, a federal court allowed the order barring the national Republican Party from engaging in ballot security activity to expire. That bolstered a national effort by both the Trump campaign and Republican operatives to mobilize poll watchers in at least 15 states, the New York Times reported earlier this year. 

On the volunteer coordination page that the president linked to in his Wednesday tweet, supporters can choose to join the “Election Day Operations” team. The goal “is to make sure that everyone who is legally entitled to vote has the opportunity to vote, once,” said campaign spokesperson Erin Perrine in a video, with an emphasis on “legal” and “once.” 

“Our goal is to cover every polling place in the country with people like you,” she said.

The effort includes distributing lawyered training videos in which prospective monitors are instructed on the dos and donts of poll watching — challenging ballots and voter eligibility with election workers, not voters themselves — and told to be polite to “even our Democratic friends,” the New York Times reported. In Arizona, for example, that includes arming them with the state’s voter ID requirements.

“There is absolutely no excuse for promoting the intimidation or harassment of voters.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom Together with 10 other Democratic Governors

California, where polls show former Vice President Joe Biden leading Trump by at least 30 points, isn’t likely to be a prime focus. A regional spokesperson for the Trump campaign did not respond to a request for information about Election Day operations within the state. 

Simply observing the proceedings at an election place is not illegal in California. But in an especially well-timed memo sent the day before this week’s debate, Democratic Secretary of State Alex Padilla reminded county election officials that “electioneering” — defined as advocating “for or against any candidate or measure on the ballot within 100 feet of a polling place” or any other voting location is illegal in California. 

In other words, “poll watchers” are allowed to watch the voting take place in California. But that’s basically all they can do.

Today Gov. Gavin Newsom joined 10 other Democratic governors in a statement denouncing what they perceive to be threats to democracy. It read, in part, “There is absolutely no excuse for promoting the intimidation or harassment of voters.”

“If any Californian believes their voting rights are being denied,” said Padilla spokesman Sam Mahood, “they should contact their local elections officials or the Secretary of State’s office.”

For months, Trump has argued, without evidence, that voting in November 2020 will be rife with fraud. While his focus has been almost exclusively on mail-in ballots, his call for poll watchers suggests he also has little faith in in-person voting processes either. 

Via the Post It, CalMatters political reporter Ben Christopher shares frequent updates from the (socially distanced) 2020 campaign trail.

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...