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Oath Keepers Founder Says 'Undercover' Poll Watching Effort Won't Intimidate Voters

Stewart Rhodes
Stewart Rhodes

WASHINGTON ― The founder of a fringe right-wing group issued a "call to action" this week asking members of the organization to go undercover to watch for voter fraud and voter intimidation at polling places on Election Day.

Stewart Rhodes posted his call to action on the Oath Keepers website this week on "Operation Sabot 2016," to "help police ensure the free and fair election process is not stolen from the citizens of the United States of America."

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Rhodes said Oath Keepers wouldn't intimidate any voters because they are not going to be wearing any gear that would indicate they are a member of the organization. Rhodes' post encouraged volunteers not to wear any Oath Keepers gear, and encouraged them to go "incognito," dressed to "blend in" with the public.

"You won't even know they're there," Rhodes said in the interview. "If someone is just going about their business, have a nice day. But if it looks like they're doing something illegal, we're going to record it."

"The ideal would be to catch somebody ― you know, a carload or a busload or a vanload ― of people going from one polling place to another," Rhodes said. "That is obviously a smoking gun video we'd like to have, but clearly us being out there is hopefully going to put a damper on those kinds of activities. So if nothing happens, then great, we have a boring day and just walk around and enjoy the outdoors."

In-person voter fraud in the United States is very rare. Justin Levitt, a former professor at Loyola Law School who now serves as a top voting rights official in the Justice Department, found just 31 credible accusations of voter impersonation fraud out of one billion ballots cast over several elections.

Rhodes' post encouraged members to dress "to NOT impress" and in a way that would allow them to be "overlooked and forgotten" outside of polling stations. He suggested they wear clothing that would let them fade into their surroundings.

"That may mean wearing a Bob Marley, pot leaf, tie-die peace symbol, or 'Che'GuevaraT -Shirt, etc. (we have plenty of long-haired, former 'Hippy' Vietnam Veterans, for example, who can easily do that), or it may mean wearing working-man Carhartt pants and a plaid shirt," he wrote. "Dress in whatever manner you think will help you blend in, depending on where you live and your local social environment. But please don't dress in cammo pants or shirt, like a wanna-be militia member."

In an Oath Keepers video, Louisiana Oath Keepers State Coordinator Duncan Simmons said they did not want to be viewed as infringing on the rights of voters. "We're there to document, not to interfere," Simmons said.

"If you start seeing busloads of people get off at one poll ... just to get off the bus at another poll, report that to your local law enforcement," Greg McWhirter, identified as a member of the national board of directors, said in the video. He encouraged volunteers to be "friendly" and non-confrontational.

"Also, don't be armed," McWhirter added.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has been warning about voter fraud over the past several months, and has recently been increasing his rhetoric as polls show him severely trailing in the polls ahead of Election Day. Trump has been warning of a "rigged" election process, and an anti-fraud group linked to his campaign has been encouraging citizens to create ID badges and question voters outside of polling stations.

But in his post, Rhodes encourages Oath Keeper members to "covertly" observe and record, and to avoid filming in an obvious manner.

"When in close proximity to people, or when you need to get closer to catch audio, one way is to use your cell phone camera by having your cell phone tucked inconspicuously into a shirt or pants pocket, with the camera lens barely visible above the top of the pocket, so that it acts as a low-profile body-camera, or use a well placed Go-Pro, or a pen camera, or other hidden camera," Rhodes wrote.

"Be sure your local police know that your intent is to NOT be a vigilante," he wrote.

The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the Oath Keepers an "extremist" antigovernment group that subscribes to "paranoid conspiracy theories." Members of the organization were involved in the Cliven Bundy standoff, and also showed up during the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown in August 2014. The organization is open to current and former members of the military, law enforcement and first responder organizations.

Rhodes told HuffPost that their operation was inspired by an undercover video published by James O'Keefe's Project Veritas. A video put out by the organization earlier this month features a Democratic operative talking theoretically about how a voter fraud operation might work. That video was a "smoking gun," Rhodes said.

"I think its an indicator of what they've been doing for a long time," he added.

HuffPost asked Rhodes whether he worried that members of his organization might be inexperienced with poll watching, pointing to a recent Wall Street Journal story in which a Republican poll watcher indicates that voters not speaking English could be a sign that something is amiss. (Plenty of U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote do not speak English, and in fact there are specific sections of the Voting Rights Act that protect non-English speaking voters.)

"We don't have idiots like that in our organization," Rhodes said. "They will be led by experienced police officers who've worked undercover." He said reports would be properly vetted before they were sent to police to make sure that lawful activities weren't being reported to the authorities.

"I don't think the sky is going to fall," Rhodes said. "The last thing we want to do is have false alarms and false reports that get the police doing stupid crap instead of focusing on the actual crimes."

"Navy Jack," a military veteran from the Washington D.C. area associated with the Oath Keepers, who declined to use his full name because he doesn't want to hurt his company, told HuffPost that the best outcome would be that they don't detect any wrongdoing and could put out a report placing confidence in the elections process.

"That would be the best hope," he said, "is that there isn't widespread voter fraud."

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