A Memphis poll worker turned away people wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, saying they couldn't vote. Robocalls warned thousands of Michigan residents that mail-in voting could put their personal information in the hands of debt collectors and police. In Georgia, officials cut polling places by nearly 10%, even as the number of voters surged by nearly 2 million.
The long American tradition of threatening voting access — often for Black people and Latinos — has dramatically resurfaced in 2020, this time buttressed by a record-setting wave of litigation and a beleaguered president whose re-election campaign is built around a strategy of sowing doubt and confusion.
Voting rights activists depict the fights against expanding voter access as a last-ditch effort by President Donald Trump and his allies to disenfranchise citizens who tend to favor Democrats. The administration insists — despite no evidence of a widespread problem — that it must enforce restrictions to prevent voter fraud.
"We have an incredibly polarized country and we have a political party whose leader thinks it's to the party's advantage to make it harder for people to register to vote and to vote," said Richard Hasen, a University of California, Irvine law professor and authority on voting. "So that is where we are."
Trump's efforts to tamp down turnout, particularly among voters of color, stands in stark contrast to other recent GOP presidential candidates, including John McCain and Mitt Romney, who spoke of a "big tent" party.
"There are two strands in the Republican Party," said Hasen. "There is one that has tried to be more inclusive, as a means to win elections and there is a voter-suppression wing. With Trump in office, it's clear the voter-suppression wing is dominant right now."
Republicans reject the notion that strict adherence to the rules is intended to quash voting. The party's poll watchers are being trained to be "respectful and polite" and to follow the law, said Mandi Merritt, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
"The poll watching program is designed to ensure that no legally eligible voters are disenfranchised, that all votes are accurately and legally tabulated, and that voters are not confused about laws and procedures," Merritt said.
Although that may be the official GOP position, skeptics hear something different in Trump's repeated insistence that he will be cheated and that his followers must watch the polls "very closely." Critics worry the president's false claims of fraud could lead to intimidation or violence.
"Many heard a call for voter intimidation ... a fear bolstered by the actions of armed white right-wing militias that have garnered support from the president in recent months as they confronted anti-racist protesters," the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund wrote in an early October letter to Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray.
One longtime Republican voting expert has debunked the fraud claims powering his party's efforts. Attorney Ben Ginsberg, who spent nearly four decades representing the national Republican Party and multiple GOP candidates, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last month that a "lack of evidence" renders Trump's claims "unsustainable."
"The truth is that after decades of looking for illegal voting, there's no proof of widespread fraud," Ginsberg wrote. "At most, there are isolated incidents — by both Democrats and Republicans. Elections are not rigged. Absentee ballots use the same process as mail-in ballots — different states use different labels for the same process."
One judge who Trump nominated to the federal bench, J. Nicholas Ranjan, recently came to a similar conclusion. In a ruling this month, Ranjan rejected Trump campaign and GOP attempts to limit ballot drop boxes in Pennsylvania and require signature-matching for would-be voters.
"At most," the judge wrote, "they have pieced together a sequence of uncertain assumptions."
State and federal courts have rendered mixed verdicts in voting access cases this fall. Judges have consistently rejected allegations of fraud, but some have ruled against broader voting access or extended ballot tabulations, in order to avoid altering the rules close to Election Day.
Some critics suggest that the president is merely trying to make excuses for a defeat that seems increasingly likely, or that he is trying to build a case in hopes that he can somehow force the election outcome into federal courts, where he may have the upper hand.
But Ginsberg, cautioned Republicans to steer away from a vote-stifling crusade. "Otherwise, they risk harming the fundamental principle of our democracy: that all eligible voters must be allowed to cast their ballots," he wrote. "If that happens, Americans will deservedly render the GOP a minority party for a long, long time."