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Oct. 1, 2020, 9:26 a.m. EDT

Trump wants poll watchers — This is what happened after New Jersey Republicans used them to intimidate voters in 1981

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By Mark Krasovic

During the first presidential debate, Donald Trump was  asked by moderator Chris Wallace  if he would “urge” his followers to remain calm during a prolonged vote-counting period after the election, if the winner were unclear.

“I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that is what has to happen, I am urging them to do it,” Trump said. “I hope it’s going to be a fair election, and if it’s a fair election, I am 100 percent on board, but if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”

This  wasn’t the first time Trump  has said he wants to recruit poll watchers to monitor the vote. And  to some , the image of thousands of Trump supporters crowding into polling places to monitor voters looks like voter intimidation, a practice long used in the U.S. by political parties to suppress one side’s vote and affect an election’s outcome.

In the  history of voter suppression  in the U.S. – including attempts to stop  Black  and  Latino people  from voting – Republican tactics in the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial race are worth highlighting. That incident sparked a court order – a “consent decree” – forbidding the GOP from using a variety of voter intimidation methods, including armed poll watchers.

The 2020 presidential election will be the first in nearly 40 years conducted without the protections afforded by that decree.

In November 1981, voters in several cities saw posters at polling places printed in bright red letters. “WARNING,” they read. “This area is being patrolled by  the National Ballot Security Task Force .”

And voters soon encountered the patrols themselves. About 200 were deployed statewide, many of them uniformed and carrying guns.

In Trenton, patrol members asked a Black voter for her registration card and turned her away when she didn’t produce it. Latino voters were similarly prevented from voting in Vineland, while in Newark some voters were physically chased from the polls by patrolmen, one of whom warned a poll worker not to stay at her post after dark. Similar scenes played out in at least two other cities, Camden and Atlantic City.

Weeks later, after a recount, Republican  Thomas Kean  won the election by fewer than 1,800 votes.

Democrats, however, soon won a significant victory. With local civil rights activists, they discovered that the “ballot security” operation was a joint project of the state and national Republican committees. They filed suit in December 1981,  charging Republicans with “efforts to intimidate, threaten and coerce  duly qualified black and Hispanic voters.”

In November 1982, the case was settled when the  Republican committees signed a federal consent decree  – a court order applicable to activities anywhere in the U.S. – agreeing not to use race in selecting targets for ballot security activities and to refrain from deploying armed poll watchers.

That order  expired in 2018  after Democrats failed to convince a judge to renew it.

As  a professor  who teaches and  writes  about New Jersey history, I’m alarmed by the expiration because I know that Republicans in 1981 relied not only on armed poll watchers but also on a history of white vigilantism and intimidation in the Garden State. These issues  resonate  today in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and continued GOP attempts to  suppress the 2020 vote   in numerous states .

Considered an early referendum on Ronald Reagan’s presidency, New Jersey’s 1981 gubernatorial race held special meaning for Republicans nationwide. Kean – with  campaign manager Roger Stone  at the helm – promised corporate tax cuts and relied heavily on Reagan’s endorsement.

To secure victory, state and national Republican party officials devised a project they claimed would prevent Democratic cheating at the polls.

In the summer of 1981, the Republican National Committee sent an operative named John A. Kelly to New Jersey to run the ballot security effort. Kelly had first been hired by the Republican National Committee in 1980 to work in the Reagan campaign, and he served as one of the  RNC’s liaisons to the Reagan White House .

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