A New Jersey federal judge on Tuesday officially allowed a consent decree barring the Republican National Committee from engaging in poll-watching and other ballot security measures to expire.
The order had blocked the RNC from undertaking “any program aimed at combating voter fraud by preventing potential voters from registering to vote or casting a ballot.” It applied to things like compiling lists of voters to challenge and sending people to the polls to confront and record people when they vote.
The order dated back to the early 1980s and was set to expire last year. Lawyers for the Democratic National Committee had been fighting to extend it, arguing that the RNC may have violated the order during the 2016 election. New Jersey District Court Judge John Vazquez, appointed to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama, officially denied the request on Tuesday.
The RNC entered the consent decree following the 1981 gubernatorial election in New Jersey. In that election, the RNC sent mailings to neighborhoods with high numbers of people of color, and then asked the state to remove from its rolls the names of all voters whose mailings were returned as undeliverable. According to court documents, the RNC also hired off-duty police officers with armbands that said “National Ballot Security Task Force” to patrol polling stations in areas where many people of color lived. Some of the off-duty officers had firearms, according to court documents.
Richard Hasen, an election law expert and professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote in November that letting the decree expire would allow the RNC to push suppressive voting policies.
“With the consent decree gone, the RNC will for the first time in 35 years be free to begin anew efforts to spur purges of voter rolls and take potentially suppressive ballot security measures in the name of preventing voter fraud,” Hasen wrote in a Slate op-ed. “No doubt RNC lawyers would advise against taking these steps, at least for a while, to forestall the DNC from running back to court seeking to have the consent decree reinstated.”
Ronald Klain, a Democratic campaign lawyer and former top aide in the Obama and Clinton administrations, tweeted that releasing the RNC from the consent decree would give rise to problems in 2018.
“We are gratified that the judge recognized our full compliance with the consent decree and rejected the DNC’s baseless claims,” RNC spokesman Michael Ahrens said in a statement. “Today’s ruling will allow the RNC to work more closely with state parties and campaigns to do what we do best, ensure that more people vote through our unmatched field program.”
Lawyers for the DNC argued that the Trump administration could have violated the consent decree after Sean Spicer, the RNC communications director during the campaign, said in a GQ interview that he was on the fifth floor of Trump Tower, the area where the campaign monitored the polls, on election night. In a deposition in the case, Spicer denied engaging in any ballot security measures and said the RNC was aware of the order and took steps to avoid engaging in ballot security measures during the campaign.
Had the DNC been able to demonstrate that the RNC violated the consent decree, it would have been extended another eight years.
Hasen argued that giving the RNC that power is particularly alarming given President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud. During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly claimed that the election could be “stolen” from him. During an August 2016 rally in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Trump suggested people at one of his rallies go monitor the polls ― “go down to certain areas” and “watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.”
Several studies and investigations have shown voter fraud is not a widespread issue.
Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, noted that there are still protections against voter intimidation codified in federal law. However, she tweeted that lifting the consent decree makes it more likely that subsequent calls from Trump to monitor the polls would result in illegal activity.