WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is threatening to send law enforcement to polling places for the upcoming presidential election, part of a growing pattern of rhetoric in which he has suggested that he wants to make it harder for Americans to vote.
And much like the idea he floated a few weeks ago about delaying the election entirely, it's not exactly up to him. The effort also could be viewed as a means to intimidate minority voters, who tend to support Democrats.
During an interview Thursday night with Fox News host Sean Hannity as part of the counter-programming for the Democratic National Convention, Trump suggested he'd bring in both federal and local law enforcement. The president has repeatedly asserted, without evidence, that there will be widespread voter fraud this November, just as he falsely claimed four years ago after he lost the popular vote.
“We’re going to have everything," he said. "We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement, and we’re going to hopefully have U.S. attorneys and we’re going to have everybody, and attorney generals. But it’s very hard.”
But federal law prohibits sending “any troops or armed men” to any polling place in the country, and any effort to send them is a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison. One caveat: Troops can be sent in “to repel armed enemies of the United States” during voting. The law would also bar the president from sending in nonmilitary law enforcement if they are armed. Most marshals and FBI agents usually are.
The Justice Department routinely conducts monitoring of polling places on Election Day with both federal observers, who are generally allowed inside polling places without written permission, as well as prosecutors and some FBI agents to ensure compliance with federal voting-rights laws.
In past years, the Justice Department has compelled U.S. attorney’s offices around the country to assign specific prosecutors as election officers who would oversee potential election-crime matters in their districts, including enforcing federal criminal law prohibiting voter intimidation.
Trump has no authority to send in local law enforcement or state attorneys general. That is up to the states, of which several expressly ban law enforcement at polls. Pennsylvania and Tennessee, for example, ban officers unless they are voting. Other states, like New York, allow for police to play roles at the polling sites and some have police staged for ballot security.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged voters not to pay “any attention” to what Trump was saying on the matter. The House debated mail delivery disruptions and was poised to approve legislation in a rare Saturday session that would reverse recent changes in U.S. Postal Service operations and send $25 billion in emergency funds.
“It’s scary. But ignore that," she said of Trump's remarks. "It’s a suppress-the-vote tactic.”
Trump has made false claims about the integrity of mail-in balloting and floated the idea of withholding election money from states and refusing funding for the Postal Service so as to curtail the use of voting by mail.
He also has ratcheted up his rhetoric about the sanctity of the upcoming selection, not committing to honoring the result while asserting in visits to battleground states Wisconsin and Pennsylvania this week that "the only way we’re going to lose this election is if this election is rigged.”
Along with suggesting that it could take weeks before a winner is known, Trump has planted the seeds of a campaign to undermine confidence in the election, sowing doubt about the validity of a possible defeat.
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said in a tweet that she would not allow law enforcement near polling sites.
“This is designed for voter intimidation, indistinguishable from tactics used against black voters in the Jim Crow South,” she tweeted.
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.