US judge to wait, watch for signs of NC voter suppression

Early voters wait outside George Pierce Park Community Recreation Center in Suwanee on Wednesday, October 26, 2016. 

GREENSBORO, N.C. — A federal judge said Monday that she sees insufficient evidence that North Carolina Republicans and presidential candidate Donald Trump want supporters to intimidate minorities on Election Day, but she'll keep an eye on whether there's a coordinated effort to dissuade voters from casting ballots.

"These are difficult times," U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles said after an hourlong hearing into a lawsuit North Carolina's Democratic Party filed last week.

The lawsuit is similar to cases in five other crucial swing states that could decide whether Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton become the next president.

Federal courts have rejected similar complaints in Ohio and Arizona. Nevada, Michigan and Pennsylvania cases remain pending. Ohio Democrats on Monday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to issue an order aimed at preventing Trump's supporters from harassing or intimidating voters on Election Day.

North Carolina Democrats asked the judge to block what they claim is a "coordinated campaign of vigilante voter intimidation" involving the state Republican Party; Donald Trump's presidential campaign; informal Trump adviser Roger Stone; and Stone's political organization, Stop the Steal, which plans to monitor polling places.

Stone has said Trump-supporting volunteers plan to watch polls in nine U.S. cities, including Charlotte and Fayetteville. Democrats contend that's aimed at intimidating voters of color.

Trump and Stone have used bogus claims of voter fraud to stir up supporters in an effort to keep black and Hispanic voters from voting, said Dawn Smalls, a lawyer for North Carolina Democrats. Though it's lawful for anyone to observe polling places and speak to voters coming and going, Trump and Stone have urged untrained volunteers to watch for signs they interpret to be voter fraud in cities with high minority populations, Smalls told Eagles.

"We're not in a normal election year. The Republican nominee has been endorsed by the KKK," Smalls said. There are "concerted efforts to make people feel insecure at the polls."

But Eagles said she didn't see strong evidence that Trump's campaign or the others targeted by Democrats were involved in plans that warranted extraordinary legal measures.

Trump's lawyer said Democrat allegations of intimidating political behavior have no connection to the GOP nominee, his campaign, the Republican Party or other groups.

"Everything I've seen is just spontaneous activity by miscellaneous people," attorney James Burnham said.

State GOP attorney Tom Stark noted it was a local Republican Party headquarters that was firebombed in an apparent case of political violence.

The Orange County GOP office was torched by a flammable device three weeks ago and someone spray-painted an anti-GOP slogan referring to "Nazi Republicans" on a nearby wall, authorities said. The case is unsolved. Last week, an obscenity directed at Trump was spray-painted on the side of the building housing the nearby Alamance County Republican Party headquarters

The Democrats' lawsuit is one of a number of voting-rights cases in North Carolina. A federal judge ruled last week that thousands of people should be allowed to cast ballots after they were initially purged from the roll of eligible voters in the past three months through a process disproportionately targeting blacks.

The director of the State Board of Elections said last week that the U.S. Justice Department will send monitors to four counties: Cumberland, Forsyth, Robeson and Wake.

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