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Observers have noted more cases of voter intimidation in 2016

Republican leaders and independent groups worry widespread voter fraud could sway election results away from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump — while Democrats and voting rights groups fear Trump is promoting voter intimidation targeted at black voters, who overwhelmingly support Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Since mid-October, Trump has questioned the legitimacy of the election and has urged his supporters to monitor polling sites for fraud.

“Go and vote and then go and check out (polling) areas, because a lot of bad things happen,” Trump told supporters at a Pennsylvania rally last month. “We don’t want to lose for that reason.”

But Democrats and voting rights organizations claim Trump and the Republicans are promoting illegal voter intimidation.

Although there are usually very few instances of voter harassment at the polls during early voting, this year has been the exception, said Anita Earls, the executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

And the majority of voter intimidation is expected today, said Allison Riggs, a staff attorney for the SCSJ.

“We’ve always been most focused on and worried about Election Day,” she said.

Guarding against fraud

Trump’s official campaign website features a page where his supporters can sign up to be volunteer election observers — labeled “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!”

And a variety of independent groups have pledged to send people to monitor the polls in hopes of spotting and preventing fraud.

Roger Stone, former Trump adviser, founded Stop the Steal to organize poll-watching efforts. The group conducts its own exit polling in order to verify the integrity of the election, according to its website.

And the Oath Keepers, a group of active military personnel, police, first responders and veterans, has called their members to covertly film and photograph suspected acts of voter fraud at the polls today.

“One of the major political parties... (is) conducting voter fraud operations on an industrial scale...” the group wrote on its website.

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said in an email voter fraud is of serious concern in this election.

Woodhouse said while Republican Party poll watchers will also be present on Election Day, they are highly trained and vetted to comply with state laws.

“We never interfere with the voting process and do not allow engagement with voters in the secured voting area,” he said.

Tracy Reams, director of the Orange County Board of Elections, said both parties can send official observers to each precinct — but the observers are barred from engaging with voters.

She said there have been no known cases of voter fraud in Orange County.

A nationwide study by Justin Levitt, professor at Loyola Law School, found 31 credible cases of voter fraud between 2000 and 2014 out of more than one billion votes cast.

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Voter intimidation

Democrats and nonpartisan voting rights groups believe the more prevalent problem at the polls is voter intimidation.

The N.C. Democratic Party has sued Stop the Steal, along with the Trump campaign in the state and the N.C. GOP, for engaging in intimidation efforts against minorities.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles ruled Monday there was insufficient evidence to back these claims.

The NAACP issued a statement last week saying black voters are particularly vulnerable to voter intimidation — especially after the 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“The kinds of threats we have heard in recent months — ID checks, voter intimidation, misinformation campaigns — harken back to the first half of the 20th century,” said NAACP President Cornell Brooks in the statement.

“These practices are illegal, and they are wrong.”

Instances of voter intimidation by apparent Trump supporters have been reported in counties throughout the state, said Isela Gutiérrez, associate research director for Democracy NC.

And Reams said an aggressive Republican campaigner was removed from a polling place in Chapel Hill during the early voting period.

Observers are unsure of what voters will encounter today at the polls — but Earls said some of the damage might have already been done.

“In some ways, the real impact of the threat happens by just making the threat,” she said. “Hearing that this might happen could discourage people from voting.”