President Trump has told his supporters to, "go into the polls and watch very carefully." Some voters may feel intimidated by that, but Iowa has strict laws governing who can be inside polling places and what they can do. Charlie Neibergall/AP
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By Kassidy ArenaIowa Public Radio News

President Trump’s call for supporters to watch the polls closely in November disturbs some Iowans, and it’s even scared some away from voting in person. And that could hurt minority voter turnout.

At the first presidential debate this year, President Trump said something about Election Day that was disturbing to some voters in Iowa. He told his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.” Although people cannot legally just walk up on Election Day and watch voters, Trump’s words rang in the minds of some eligible immigrant voters in the state.

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Sonia Reyes, the director for the Office of Latino Affairs within the Iowa Department of Human Rights, is usually the first person many Latino immigrants trust. They go to her for information, concerns and help.

“I know for a fact that it is going to affect people going to vote because they don’t feel comfortable going because they don’t want to put themselves in danger,” Reyes said.

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She said she has received a lot of phone calls and emails from people who are afraid to vote in person. This includes people who are naturalized citizens, but have relatives who are not.

“Even if they’re naturalized, they’re still afraid. And people who have mixed families, you know, with immigration status. They’re afraid, if they’re the main providers,” Reyes said. “So yeah, it is definitely going to affect the polls.”

This can even extend to Latinos who were born in the U.S. Kevin Cavallin is the son of an Argentinean man and he said he empathizes with the people who may be too afraid to show up and vote.

“As an individual who is of Latino descent, it becomes a question of: Are there going to be people inside the polling or outside the polling that may take one look at the way I look, or the way I speak and question whether or not I’m a U.S. citizen, or question whether or not I have the right to vote?” Cavallin said.

Cavallin, a molecular biologist at Iowa State University, is registered as a no party voter. This year, he said the president has taken it too far with what he’s calling the “Army for Trump.” He fears it will not only disenfranchise minority voters, but it is also a form of voter intimidation.

“I shouldn’t have to have somebody who is a Trump supporter ask me for a green card,” Cavallin said. “And whether or not that’s reality, or whether or not that’s just paranoia, I think the perception is out there that with a name like Trump’s army, it makes one wonder if these people are going to be trained objective observers.”

In Iowa, a person needs to have official permission to be a poll watcher. But, according to the poll watcher guidebook provided by the secretary of state, a poll watcher may challenge a voter’s qualifications as long as official election workers are also involved in the process. The watcher challenging a voter must submit a written form to the state. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, most states allow a voter’s right to cast a ballot to be challenged, but “[v]oter challenge laws are defended as a means to prevent voter fraud. At times, however, they can be misused and harm otherwise eligible voters.”

Not everyone is disturbed by the idea of poll watchers. Spanish interpreter and translator Vanessa Marcano-Kelly is originally from Venezuela. She has lived in Iowa since 2012. This is the first U.S. presidential election in which she’s eligible to vote. Marcano-Kelly said poll watchers are a normal part of Election Day. She’s even used to more renowned watchers from international organizations like the United Nations from her time living in Venezuela.

“It has always been really normal to me to have people auditing and watching elections. So I am like, well, if we have poll watchers from both sides,” Marcano-Kelly abruptly stopped in the middle of her sentence. “Actually, why don’t we have more people watching these elections?”

She said Trump’s call for watching the polls doesn’t surprise her.

“I think it is part of politics, and kind of, like the bombastic nature of the president at this point in his rhetoric. But, I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing. But you know, with an asterisk,” Marcano-Kelly said.

She said when someone labels poll watchers as an army, that’s where the asterisk comes in. Marcano-Kelly said an army suggests the idea of confrontation. And she said poll watchers’ only jobs should be to make sure elections are transparent and safe for voters.

A spokesperson for the Republican Party of Iowa said they don’t condone any “intimidation activity” and said its poll watchers will go through training so they know what is and is not allowed. But both Reyes and Cavallin are still concerned. They said the discussion of poll watchers paired with Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and disinformation about election fraud could affect overall voter turnout for minority voters.

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