If you’ve ever voted, you’ve probably seen a poll watcher: they’re the quiet, modestly dressed folks standing to one side, observing the orderly process of democracy unfold. It’s a service provided by your neighbors, Democrat and Republican alike, that is supposed to give us all a little extra confidence that our elections are free and fair. “We’ve done it every election year as far back as I can remember,” says Steve Knotts, a veteran Republican organizer in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County. Properly trained to follow local election rules, “they’re simply another person at the polling place,” says Knotts.
And then there’s President Donald Trump’s version of a poll watcher. In recent months, official Trump campaign advertisements have adopted the stark language of wartime recruitment, calling on supporters to “enlist today” so they can join the “top ranks” alongside “battle-tested Team Trump operatives.” In one widely shared video ad, Don Jr., Trump’s eldest son, says, “The radical left are laying the groundwork to steal this election from my father … We need every able-bodied man and woman to join Army for Trump’s election security operation.”
If that sounds scary, it’s supposed to, say Democrats and voting-rights advocates. The Trump team’s martial talk is intended to mobilize his voters and deter those who support his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, says election-law expert Rick Hasen at the University of California, Irvine. “I can think of nothing in recent history that’s even close to this,” he says. “Trump is a candidate of a different era–an era when voter suppression was seen as acceptable.”
Most voters don’t seem particularly frightened by Trump’s attempt to turn mundane poll watching into an action-hero role. More than 2.3 million people had voted in person by Oct. 20, according to the U.S. Elections Project, a database run by Michael McDonald with the University of Florida. Florida saw a surge of in-person voting as polls opened Oct. 19, and in Georgia, three times as many people had voted in person by Oct. 20 as at the same point in 2016, according to a survey of election officials by CNN, Edison Research and Catalist.
The concern, even among some of Trump’s most senior law-enforcement officials, is that his campaign’s rhetoric could end up getting people hurt. Right-wing extremist groups, including QAnon, Proud Boys, Boogaloos and so-called militia groups, have all called for a physical presence at polling places, says Frank Figliuzzi, the FBI’s former counterintelligence director. “The mobilization has already occurred,” he says. “The specter of people who are violent in nature and have violent agendas, and often come armed with long guns is becoming a very real possibility.”
Efforts are under way to prevent intimidation and violence. Election officials are reviewing security plans for their local polling stations. Social-media platforms are monitoring calls to suppress the vote. State attorneys general have instructed law enforcement to arrest and charge anyone who intimidates voters or election workers. “You cannot use those positions to try and interfere with a person’s right to vote,” Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel said on an Oct. 6 call with the press. “We have to draw the line.”
The Trump team’s tactics may seem familiar to older voters in some parts of the country, and not just the Deep South where Jim Crow voter-suppression measures were once widespread. During the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial election, the GOP was caught hiring off-duty law-enforcement officers to “monitor” minority precincts and require Black or Latino voters to show registration cards. In primarily Black and Latino neighborhoods around Houston in 2010, members of a Tea Party–affiliated group, True the Vote, were accused of “hovering over” voters and “getting into election workers’ faces,” according to Assistant Harris County Attorney Terry O’Rourke.
After the 1981 incident, the courts imposed a consent decree on the Republican National Committee, forcing it to submit all of its poll-watching plans for review by a judge. The decree expired in December 2017, and Trump campaign operatives got to work. “We were really operating with one hand tied behind our back,” Trump’s deputy campaign manager, Justin Clark, told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March. Detailing plans to recruit 50,000 Republican volunteers to become poll watchers in 2020, Clark told the group, “We’re going to have scale this year; we’re going to be out there protecting our votes.”
That sentiment soon appeared online, taking on an overtly militaristic tone. Protecting our votes became defend your ballot, and scale became an army. Familiar groups responded. Ten years after their controversial role in Houston, members of True the Vote have worked to recruit U.S. military veterans to go to polling places on Nov. 3, says Ed Hiner, a retired Navy SEAL who says he led the effort earlier this year but bowed out in June when the national conversation around poll watching became “too partisan.” Hiner says he promoted the effort to 2 million former service members through veterans’ organizations. On Facebook, the group has echoed Trump’s call to send “sheriffs” to the polls and posted messages like, “PA Patriots, you need to engage–now! Eyes on every drop-off, polling place and count.”
The Trump campaign declined to answer TIME’s repeated requests for information about the number of poll watchers that registered through their website. Thea McDonald, the campaign’s national deputy press secretary, says that the “Army for Trump” is about fairness, not intimidation. “Poll watchers will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally, all valid ballots are counted,” she says.
That, of course, is what good poll watching is supposed to be about, and those Americans who sign up for the traditional role with their local election officials will find a nonpartisan process. Observers from both parties typically undergo training and certification. GOP training videos show coiffed Republican operatives speaking in measured tones about proper procedures and reminding prospective poll watchers to “be courteous to county staff and other watchers–yes, even our Democrat friends!”
Election officials, social-media platforms and law enforcement–worried the Trump campaign’s language will inspire something less civil–are preparing for the worst. In October, Facebook said it would no longer allow content that encourages poll watching by using “militarized” language that is intended to “intimidate, exert control, or display power over election officials or voters.” In a call with reporters, Facebook Vice President of Global Policy Management Monika Bickert said that posts using words like army or battle would be prohibited.
U.S. law enforcement and security agencies also seem to be on alert. In an assessment that described far-right extremists as the largest domestic terrorist threat in the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) noted that such bad actors are focusing on election- or campaign-related activities. “Open-air, publicly accessible parts of physical election infrastructure, such as campaign-associated mass gatherings, polling places and voter-registration events, would be the most likely flash points for potential violence,” the analysis read. Domestic terrorists “might target events related to the 2020 presidential campaigns, the election itself, election results or the post-election period.”
The current state of the country adds its own concerns. “Between the pandemic and civil unrest, the timing couldn’t be worse,” says Daryl Johnson, a former DHS senior analyst. A report by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence warned it is “likely that significant numbers of people will bring guns to polling places under the guise of preventing election fraud.” Johnson says Trump’s rhetoric is fueling these groups’ fear and paranoia. “By calling people to polling stations, these armed militias could show up and lead to the intimidation of voters under the guise of poll watching.”
Election officials are taking their own steps to protect voters. On Sept. 19, during early in-person voting in Fairfax, Va., dozens of Trump supporters chanting, “Four more years,” massed near a polling location, forcing officials to allow a group of voters to wait inside. Now officials there say they will expand the site’s buffer zone, in which electioneering is prohibited, from 40 ft. to 150 ft.
That’s just fine by Knotts, the GOP chairman of Fairfax County, who is determined to oversee a quiet, fair Election Day. “Most people don’t even know who a poll watcher is,” he says. “My hope is that they don’t even notice us, and everything goes on without a hitch.”
With reporting by Mariah Espada
This appears in the November 02, 2020 issue of TIME.