Donald Trump stopped bragging about the polls to share some “breaking news.” The FBI is investigating how Hillary Clinton “put the office of Secretary of State up for sale. …”
“The FBI agents say their investigation is likely to yield an indictment,” he said at a rally Thursday, echoing a report on Fox News that has been since retracted.
“Lock her up. Lock her up,” the crowd shouted. Trump paused, the cry filling Jacksonville Equestrian Center. “Lock her up!”
“But just remember,” he continued, wagging a finger, “the system is rigged. Remember that.”
As the election has worn on, Trump has fomented darker notions, alleging widespread government corruption and questioning the integrity of elections.
While indicating he might not accept the results if Clinton wins, Trump has asked his followers to head to the polls and be on the lookout for fraud, often implying that it could happen in urban areas with large concentrations of minority voters.
“Watch Philadelphia. Watch St. Louis. Watch Chicago. Watch so many other places,” Trump said a few weeks ago in Colorado. The campaign invites people to sign up to be a “Trump election observer” and “stop crooked Hillary from rigging this election!”
Talks with a dozen people inside the horse barn here found no one ready to take up his call, but there was agreement that fraud could happen. The reality that Florida — a must-win state for Trump with a history of election problems — could be bitterly close only heightened those concerns.
“It’s been going on forever. I don’t necessary think Jacksonville, but maybe in other parts of the country where things are more lax,” said Jim Guy, 36.
“I definitely have some concerns. Not so much in this area but down in South Florida where they’ve shown in the past that they don’t really know how to vote right, the potential exists for some serious voter fraud,” said Mike Lashbrook, 48.
Trump’s persistent talk of a rigged system has resonated.
Only half of Republicans say they would accept Clinton as their president, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, and nearly 70 percent said a Clinton victory would be because of illegal voting or other mischief.
There is no evidence of widespread national voter fraud. This summer, as Trump began to ramp up talk of a “rigged” system, Florida election officials took the unusual step of issuing an open letter to reassure voters in the nation’s biggest battleground state that safeguards are in place to prevent that from happening.
But concerns and allegations are not new, and poll watching is standard practice in Florida and other states. In most cases the volunteers must be registered with a political party and go through training. They can point out potential problems to election officials and, in some states, challenge whether a voter is actually eligible. But they cannot campaign for their candidates or confront voters themselves.
Both campaigns have poll watchers and Trump has lagged Clinton in numbers, though he’s made up ground in some areas, including Tampa Bay.
“It’s like being an investigator. You have your eyes and ears,” said Carolyn Bourland, a retired teacher in Orlando, who followed Trump’s encouragement to become a poll watcher. She said she was worried about attempts to rig the election. “It’s shocking how much of this stuff is going on.”
Still, Bourland said she is clear on the limitations of her role. “You’re not allowed to campaign for any candidate, and if you see something suspicious, you go to the person in charge.”
Trump’s loosely organized effort has raised concern that people will become freelance election monitors, joining fringe groups that are mobilizing their own teams. Democrats and civil rights groups say this could lead to voter intimidation, especially among minority voters that are key to Clinton’s chances.
“Unsubstantiated allegations of fraud concern us because of the impact they can have on communities of color that are historically disenfranchised,” said Jennifer Bronson, an election protection fellow with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The group has a hotline for voters — 866-OUR-VOTE (687-8683) — and said so far 2,000 calls have come in from Florida, more than any other state. Bronson said a small number of those — she did not have an exact figure — are from people who have felt harassed at early voting sites.
In West Palm Beach, Democrats have taken video of Trump supporters using bullhorns to shout at people at an early voting site. Sheriff’s deputies have been dispatched in recent days but no arrests have been made, a spokeswoman said Friday, noting heightened tensions this election.
The lines between free speech and harassment can be matter of perspective — and distance.
Florida has a 100-foot rule that is rigidly enforced in most places. No political activity is allowed within a 100-foot radius of the entrance to a polling place, mainly to prevent voters from being harassed. Poll watchers must also adhere to the 100-foot rule.
Added to the mix is an “exit poll” effort by Roger Stone, a longtime Trump ally and political operative. Stone has signed up 1,300 “vote protectors” he says will survey voters to check against the accuracy of voting machines.
He is targeting metro areas in key battleground states, including Democratic strongholds Broward and Palm Beach counties. Stone is facing lawsuits in Ohio, Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania alleging the plan will result in intimidation against minorities.
“It’s nonsense,” Stone said in an interview Friday. “Why do they fear poll watching and exit polling? What is it they have planned that they fear will be detected?”
Stone said his group, Stop the Steal, was mindful that some bad actors could “infiltrate” the ranks but said the objective is to maintain the integrity of the election.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.