Effort led by Trump confidante and conspiracy theorist Roger Stone targets cities with large minority populations, tactic experts say could intimidate voters.
Donald Trump loyalists will attempt to conduct their own crowd-funded exit polling on election day, ostensibly due to fears that electronic voting machines in certain areas may have been “rigged”, the Guardian has learned.
But the effort, led by Trump’s notorious informal adviser Roger Stone, will focus on 600 different precincts in nine Democrat-leaning cities with large minority populations, a tactic branded highly irregular by experts, who suggested that organizers could potentially use the polling as a way to intimidate voters.
Stone told the Guardian that around 1,300 volunteers from the controversial Citizens for Trump grassroots coalition would conduct exit polling in Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Fort Lauderdale, Charlotte, Richmond, and Fayetteville – all locations in pivotal swing states.
Media organizations and political campaigns conduct exit polling for all major elections, but David Paleologos – a polling expert and director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center – said effective exit polling was done in bellwether precincts, not in areas likely to be dominated by a particular political party.
“It doesn’t sound like that’s a traditional exit poll,” Paleologos said of Stone’s planned efforts. “It sounds like that’s just gathering data, in heavily Democratic areas for some purpose. It doesn’t sound like exit polling.”
The Republican nominee said during Wednesday’s debate he would keep America “in suspense” over whether he would accept the outcome of the vote on 8 November, and on Thursday he said he would accept only “if I win” or if it is a “clear” result. He has frequently told his supporters that the election is being “rigged” against him and since August his campaign has been recruiting election observers in anticipation of what he claims could be widespread voter fraud.
On Thursday, Stone, a noted conspiracy theorist, argued that the campaign had focused their efforts to combat the so-called “rigged election” in the wrong area and should instead concentrate on “election theft” via hacked or compromised voting machines.
“To those who say that it would be un-American to challenge the election on the basis that it was rigged, I would argue it would be un-American to have evidence of that rigging and not challenge the election,” Stone said.
Experts have taken several steps to remedy the digital vulnerabilities in voting machines in recent years. Last year at least one voting machine system was found to be substantially insecure. Princeton researcher Jeremy Epstein, now of technology firm SRI, discovered that WinVote machines used in Virginia could be accessed comparatively easily over a Wi-Fi connection through simple passwords. Epstein successfully pushed to have the machines decertified.
Epstein told the Guardian that exit polls, in particular, were a dangerously inaccurate way to gauge the legitimacy of an election. “There’s a lot of evidence that exit polls are not very accurate,” Epstein said. “People don’t tell the pollsters what they actually did. In this election, depending on the neighborhood, people might not want to admit that they voted for Clinton or that they voted for Trump.”
There are already methods in place to determine the accuracy of the results in a contested district. “Roughly 75, 80% of all voters in this election will use paper ballots,” Epstein said, “so even if the machines were hacked, we’d have the paper ballots to go back to in most cases, especially in states where they do audits.”
The Department of Homeland Security is already taking precautions to make sure election results are not interfered with electronically. “To date, 33 state and 11 county or local election agencies have approached the Department of Homeland Security about our cyber security services,” the department said in a press release issued 10 October. DHS continues to offer “cyber-hygiene” services to other state or local boards looking for protection against hacking.
Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, shared Epstein’s concerns over using exit polls as way of measuring the legitimacy of an election and warned: “It doesn’t sound like a scientific way to do things, nor do I think it’s a sound way to ferret out machine problems, it sounds much more like a Roger Stone dirty trick.”
Stone, who did not identify the particular precincts volunteers would be targeting, argued that the polling methodology was “designed by professionals”, but was unable to identify who these professionals were. The former Richard Nixon adviser added that the effort was being run by the “Stop the Steal” organization, a group founded by Stone in the lead up to the Republican national convention in July, which organized protests aimed at preventing party delegates from taking the nomination away from Trump.
The Citizens for Trump coalition, which will supply volunteers for the polling, was also present at the Republican convention and organized a large rally in Cleveland alongside a host of fringe organizations, including armed vigilantes group Bikers for Trump and the conspiracy theorist website Infowars.
“It sounds like he’s organizing a goon squad that could potentially be intimidating voters in minority areas,” said Hasen. “It does raise the threat of violence on election day at polling places. People are going to have to be vigilant.”