How Philadelphians are organizing to fight voter intimidation on Election Day

PHILADELPHIA—As Donald Trump has spun his argument that tomorrow’s election is going to be stolen from him, he has repeatedly focused on Philadelphia. The Republican nominee has singled out this city as an example of the dangers of voting fraud—without evidence—and encouraged his mostly white supporters to monitor voting among “other communities” in the city.

“I just hear such reports about Philadelphia,” Trump said in Wilkes-Barre, PA, last month. “So important that you watch other communities, because we don’t want this election stolen from us.”

“Everybody knows what I’m talking about,” he added.

To make things worse, white nationalist leaders enthused by the Republican nominee’s thinly veiled racism have also threatened to send people to African-American neighborhoods here, in an attempt to disturb voting in a city that is 44% black.

But Philadelphians say they won’t be intimidated if troublemakers show up at the polls tomorrow. City officials are mobilizing the largest election protection task force in Philadelphia’s history, and faith groups are supporting the effort by sending their own volunteers to help voters at the polls.

“We’re prepared but not scared,” Rev. Alyn Waller, the pastor of Enon Tabernacle Church in northwest Philly, told me as he took a break from organizing a voter protection effort. “Donald Trump and his supporters are harkening back to a different time in this country… But we’re just not afraid of them anymore. Our country has changed. If anything I pity people who are still stuck in that silly mindset.”

A technician prepares voting mahines in Philadelphia.AP

A technician prepares voting machines in Philadelphia last month.

As the largest city in a swing state, the turnout in Philadelphia could play a big role in who wins the election. Pennsylvania has no in-person early voting, unlike several other states with tight races, so smooth sailing at the polls on Election Day will be especially critical.

The city’s District Attorney, R. Seth Williams, says 70 attorneys from his office and dozens of police detectives will be fanned out around the city to respond to accusations of voter intimidation or fraud. An election judge will also be stationed at each precinct, as in past elections.

“The coverage of this upcoming election is unlike anything we have seen before, not to mention the fact that one of the nominees for president has been making false allegations about the integrity of Philadelphia’s elections for weeks now,” Williams said in a statement. “The Election Fraud Task Force is ready to respond to whatever happens on November 8.”

In addition, the Justice Department will have election monitors at Philadelphia poll sites on Election Day, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced yesterday.

Voters will have a bevy of resources to reach out to if they have trouble voting or face any intimidation. They can call the hotline for the DA’s task force (215-686-9641), the Justice Department election lawyers (800-253-3931), or one of several national lines set up by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (866-OUR-VOTE, 888-Ve-Y-Vota in Spanish).

“We’re prepared but not scared.”

- Rev. Alyn Waller

Community and interfaith groups are also organizing their own grassroots voter protection efforts. Waller said he had mobilized 400 to 500 volunteers to go to polling places in African-American neighborhoods in north and west Philly as part of a broader community outreach program for black men.

The volunteers will help maintain order if there are long lines at the polls, encourage people not to leave the lines, and “assist older ladies getting from their car to the door,” he said.

While they aren’t poll watchers, if they do see any intimidation, they’re supposed to take videos and photos of what’s happening and report what they witness to authorities.

Rev. Alyn WallerEnon Tabernacle Church

Rev. Alyn Waller

“We will use de-escalation language to make sure no drama happens around the polls, and if necessary, help escort those who would frustrate a free and fair election off the premises,” said Waller, whose church has 15,000 parishioners.

A major local interfaith group called POWER also has been phone banking and canvassing to encourage black voters to get to the polls, and in the last few days activists with the group have stressed reminders about voting rights. One of the leaders of the group, Rev. Gregory Holston of the New Vision United Methodist Church, said the city’s faith community was united in fighting intimidation.

“It is part of our spiritual mission to encourage people to vote,” Holston said. “We’re telling people that they don’t have to feel intimidated, that they have to get out there and let their voice be heard.”

But Waller added that he isn’t very concerned about people coming from out of town. “There’s a possibility that a very small but vocal ugly part of our country might do something, but I find it hard to believe they are that organized,” he said.

Trump supporters say they need to monitor the polls to fight voter fraud. They point to the fact that 59 Philadelphia precincts saw 100% of their votes go to President Obama in 2012. (That likely had more to do with voter enthusiasm than fraud.)

Even Republican Al Schmidt—one of the three city commissioners who run elections here—said Trump’s rhetoric is misleading.

“The real threat to the integrity of elections in Philadelphia isn’t voter fraud, though it does rarely occur,” he told reporters last month. “The real threat to the integrity of elections is irresponsible accusations that undermine confidence in the electoral process.”

Trump holds a campaign event in Philadelphia suburbs in September.Getty Images

Donald Trump at a campaign event in the Philadelphia suburbs in September.

Whether any Trump supporters trying to intimidate black voters will actually turn up in Philadelphia is still a big question. So far, there’s been more talk than action. Trump’s campaign has asked people to sign up to be “Trump Election Observers,” but doesn’t appear to have sent the people who signed up anything other than general campaign emails. (I reached out to the Trump campaign to confirm this, and I’ll update if I hear back.)

Politico reported last week that white nationalist leader Andrew Anglin has talked about sending supporters to install hidden cameras at polling sites in African-American neighborhoods and suppress the vote by distributing alcohol and marijuana in “ghetto” neighborhoods.

There’s also Stop the Steal, a group run by Trump aide Roger Stone, which claims to be conducting a national exit poll to root out any election fraud. Supporters posting anonymously on the group’s online forums have talked about going to the polls here, but seem very disorganized.

“I have no idea where this post is going or if anyone will see it. I suspect that no one will,” one user posted on the site’s Pennsylvania page. “I have 10 people that wish to do exit polling in Philly and have tried for one month to find a way to get assigned and or trained. Someone / anyone please email me this web site is a maze with no outlet.”

No one responding to that post had any information about how the poll watching effort was supposed to take place.

“The real threat to the integrity of elections is irresponsible accusations that undermine confidence in the electoral process.”

- Al Schmidt, Republican city official

While Clinton so far stands to win in Philadelphia—where Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one—the big question is turnout. The Clinton campaign has focused on energizing supporters here in the final sprint of the race, bringing in big names like Katy Perry, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, and Barack and Michelle Obama for multiple rallies over the last few days. (Trump has instead focused on rural areas of the state, especially the more blue-collar region around Pittsburgh.)

Katy Perry and Hillary Clinton at a rally on aturday in Philadelphia.Getty Images

Katy Perry and Hillary Clinton at a rally on Saturday in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, a small army of Clinton volunteers from neighboring states has descended upon the city, knocking on doors and filling hotels. Nuala O’Leary drove up from Maryland with friends to canvass for Clinton on Sunday afternoon. “We haven’t met a single person who isn’t voting for her so far,” she told me, flipping through her clipboard in the picturesque Rittenhouse Square neighborhood.

As if on cue, a white-haired man walking by, noticing the canvassers’ Clinton buttons and T-shirts, started shouting, “Trump! Trump!”

“She’s owned by the banks. He’s an outsider,” he told the group as his wife stood next to him, smiling awkwardly. “He’s so outside he’s lost,” replied another Clinton volunteer. After a few minutes of polite back-and-forth, the political opponents wished each other well and went on their ways.

“The campaign told us not to engage,” O’Leary said with a laugh. “I guess we failed at that.”