Ohio Federal Judge Bars Voter Intimidation as Other States Consider Similar Suits

Court cases in play on what behavior is acceptable near polls.

ByABC News
November 5, 2016, 1:20 AM

— -- Federal judges in two states issued rulings Friday as allegations swirled about potential issues at the polls -- saying registration rolls were "likely" illegally purged in North Carolina and barring the Trump campaign from intimidating voters in Ohio.

In the Ohio case, a federal judge imposed a temporary restraining order on the Trump campaign, political operative and sometimes Trump adviser Roger Stone, and a group called Stop the Steal, Inc. which is associated with Stone, from “conspiring to intimidate, threaten, harass, or coerce voters on Election Day.”

The order also extends to the Clinton campaign, even though there was no allegation of wrongdoing against them in the suit, brought by the Ohio Democratic Party.

They are prohibited from hindering voters "from reaching or leaving the polling place," engaging in any unauthorized "poll watching," or gathering or loitering near polling places unless they plan to vote. Trump has repeatedly called for his supporters to watch the polls for voter fraud and said the election would be "rigged."

Separately, a North Carolina judge ruled today that the purging of voters names off registration rolls in the state "likely" violated the National Voter Registration Act and issued a preliminary injunction that ordered all steps to be taken to allow those individuals to vote. A suit alleging improprieties was brought by the NAACP which claimed that there are "thousands of North Carolina voters who have been targeted in coordinated, en masse challenge proceedings brought in the final weeks and months before Election Day."

During a campaign rally in Raleigh, NC, Wednesday, President Obama decried the recent claims that voters’ names were allegedly being systematically removed from voter registration rolls in the state.

"The list of voters Republicans tried to purge were two-thirds black and Democratic,” he charged. “That doesn't happen by accident. It's happening in counties across this state.”

"There was a time when systematically denying black folks to vote was considered normal as well. ... It was not that long ago that folks had to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap or recite the Constitution in Chinese in order to vote. It wasn't that long ago when folks were beaten trying to register voters in Mississippi," he added.

Voter roll purges have come up in other states in the past few months and during the primaries, as state and county boards of election try to update their rolls to clear them of anyone who has died or moved out of state.

Voter intimidation cases are also cropping up around the country. Cases were heard in Nevada and Arizona on Thursday, and another will be held in Pennsylvania on Monday.

In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Bruce Breemer said today that his office and the Pennsylvania State Police "are investigating a pattern of voter registration irregularities across the Commonwealth" but said "it is premature to reach any conclusion. At this stage of the investigation there is no evidence of voter fraud."

And in Michigan today, the Michigan Democratic Party filed a lawsuit alleging that the Trump campaign along with the Michigan Republican Party, are conspiring to intimidate minorities from voting.

The plaintiffs in that case are asking a federal judge in Michigan to stop Republican operatives from tactics that plaintiffs say are unlawfully aimed at suppressing Democratic votes across the state, especially in urban areas where large shares of African Americans are likely to vote for Hillary Clinton.

In the lawsuit, Democrats accuse Trump of using the potential for voter fraud as a pretext for encouraging supporters to show up at polling places ostensibly to stop people from casting multiple ballots.

The plaintiffs alleged that Trump's heated, racially-tinged rhetoric has led to a kind of domino effect, accelerated by associate Roger Stone, a named defendant, as well as Republican party officials in Michigan who have encouraged "roving poll watchers in places like Detroit."

The lawsuit cites a Trump supporter quoted in a press report saying his election-day plans includes racially profiling voters at polling places to "make them a little bit nervous."

“Trump’s calls for his supporters to travel en masse outside their counties of residence and engage in vigilante voter intimidation bear no possible relationship to legitimate efforts to protect against voter fraud,” the complaint states. “In fact, Trump has directed his supporters to engage in activity forbidden by Michigan state election law.”There was no immediate response from the Trump campaign.

In another case, a New Jersey federal judge today heard allegations that the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee were coordinating voter intimidation efforts, despite a legal settlement that prohibits the RNC from participating in any "ballot security" efforts. The RNC claims it has no oral or written agreements with the Trump campaign regarding “voter fraud, ballot security, ballot integrity, poll watching or poll monitoring.”

The issue of voter intimidation efforts is one of the most pressing versions of disenfranchisement in this year's race, said Myrna Perez, the deputy director of New York University's Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program.

Perez said their watchdog organization has seen examples of "both the lawful disenfranchisement and the unlawful disenfranchisement" of voters throughout the past year or two.She included restrictive voter ID laws and the Supreme Court's 2013 changes to the Voting Rights Act as examples of "lawful" disenfranchisement, but those are not the focus of the last-minute court actions under way now.

"I think in this instance, for the first half of the year, people were concerned about the formal state policies and practices and, right now, folks are concerned about what may be happening on Election Day,” she said.

“What happens when individuals get involved in monitoring and policing our polls, and what unofficial actors are going to be doing.”

But responsible poll monitoring is still important to help combat voter fraud, Michael Thielen, executive director of the Republican National Lawyers Association, said."Every fraudulent vote overrides a legitimate, real vote and disenfranchises an honest, eligible voter,” Thielen told ABC News.ABC News' Julia Jacobo and John Kruzel contributed to this report.

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