Republican plans to use political operatives as poll workers alarm voting rights activists

The lie that former President Trump won the 2020 election has played out again and again in Republican primaries for statewide office. Now, reporting by POLITICO details GOP efforts on the local level to challenge and potentially overturn elections. Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine and the author of "Cheap Speech" joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    The lie that former President Trump won the 2020 election has played out again and again in Republican primaries for statewide office, from Senate to governor to secretary of state.

    Now reporting by Politico details the efforts by the Republican Party on the local level to challenge and potentially overturn future elections.

    William is back to explain.

  • William Brangham:

    Nick, it's called the precinct strategy, where partisans are recruited to be poll workers on Election Day at different polling stations. They will look for fraud, and if they believe they find it, they will call into a network of Republican attorneys, who are primed to file lawsuits to block the vote counts.

    A story out in Politico today details how this effort is already under way in Michigan, and it's being led by the Republican National Committee.

    This idea of putting partisan actors into what are supposed to be nonpartisan roles has been promoted on the right for months, amplified by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

  • Steve Bannon, Former White House Chief Strategist:

    Well, the establishment signaled that nothing puts a fear of God in them more than the precinct strategy.

  • William Brangham:

    It's also been backed by former President Trump, who continues to lie about the results of the last election.

    In February, he urged his supporters to become precinct committee members to — quote — "take back our great country from the ground up."

    So, to help us understand this strategy and what it means for elections and for our democracy, I'm joined again by Rick Hasen. He's a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of the new book "Cheap Speech: How Disinformation Poisons Our Politics and How to Cure It."

    Rick Hasen, always good to see you.

    Can you help us understand, what is this precinct strategy all about?

    Rick Hasen, University of California, Irvine: Well, the first thing to remember is that, even though we hold national elections every four years for president, we don't conduct a single election. We conduct something like 10,000 different elections.

    Everything is hyper-localized, right? So, while there's been a lot of focus on secretary of state races and on governors, really, they're the line workers, people who check you in at the polling place, take your ballot, maybe scan your ballot into a machine.

    It's down to that level where we see people who've embraced the big lie being recruited by one of the political parties to come in and serve not as a poll watcher, which we have seen a lot of in the past, you know, someone observing what's going on in the polling place and maybe reporting to their party, but a poll worker, someone who should be having allegiance to the election body that is actually running the election, but who is now being told they should be reporting what they see via an app to a political party.

  • William Brangham:

    So, as Politico detailed, they heard some tapes of these meetings, planning to train these — these motivated poll workers, as you say, different from poll monitors, to call Republican lawyers if they see something amiss on Election Day.

    Is that legal?

  • Rick Hasen:

    So, first, because we're talking about this decentralized system, every state has their own rules as to what poll workers are allowed to do.

    And so I'm sure that, in many states, to be communicating outside the chain of command — that is, if you see a problem with the polling place, you should go to your supervisor. Going instead to the outside could be grounds for the person to be let go.

    I don't think that it would be unreasonable for an election official to say, if you have a problem, tell me and we will deal with it. And, of course, you can always talk about the issue later.

    I'm concerned that this strategy of going outside could create chaos at the polling places, could lead to disenfranchisement of workers, who might be challenged for reasons unrelated to their qualifications. Maybe they don't speak English well or have an accent, and they're being called a noncitizen for no good reason.

    And, ultimately, I'm worried that this could create the grounds for a legislature to try and say that the election was not fairly run and try to make some kind of change to election results down the line.

  • William Brangham:

    Meaning, if they can — if partisan poll workers can create enough smoke in a couple of different precincts on Election Day, we know that the — according to the Politico piece, that the GOP is trying to find a network of district attorneys who are sympathetic to this cause as well — that then the legislature might step in and do something more drastic?

  • Rick Hasen:

    Right.

    So, you may remember that part of the 2020 strategy that Trump and his allies were going through to try to steal the 2020 election was to say that there was a failed election, there was so much fraud or problems with how the election was run that we don't really know who won the state of Arizona. So let the Arizona legislature come in and pick its own winner send in an alternative slate of electors.

    I mean, this is something we're going to hear about from the January 6 Committee coming up later this month.

    You can imagine a similar strategy next time, lots of smoke, lots of unsubstantiated claims of fraud or problems, and the legislature uses it as a flimsy excuse to try to overturn the voters' will if it doesn't go the way that the legislature wants.

  • William Brangham:

    In the Politico piece, several Republican officials who are working on this strategy say: This is not nefarious. This is just us trying to offset the demonstrated Democratic population of poll workers in cities like Detroit or Philadelphia, and that we're just trying to balance the scales here. There's nothing to worry about.

    What do you make of that argument?

  • Rick Hasen:

    If all that's going on here is that the Republican Party is recruiting workers to work in heavily Democratic areas, like Philadelphia or Detroit, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think that's actually a good thing for democracy. We need more poll workers.

    The problem is people are being recruited based on this idea that they're going to be looking for this fraud. Fraud is quite rare in American elections. But people believe the false claims of Donald Trump and his allies from 2020 that the last election was stolen. They're being put into areas where they have been told — and we just heard Mo Brooks say this yesterday — that fraud happens in Democratic areas.

    They're being primed to believe that it is Democrats, that it's people of color, that is, poor people, who are stealing votes. And so if you go in with that attitude, as opposed to, I'm going to go in and help our democracy to assure that all eligible voters and only eligible voters can cast a ballot that will be fairly counted, then you are in trouble.

    Then you don't have a system where the process is going to work in the right way.

  • William Brangham:

    Rick Hasen, U.C. Irvine, always good to see you. Thank you very much for being here.

  • Rick Hasen:

    It's great to be with you.

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