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John Adams words still hold sway, writes Kevin Johnson.

Our laws will carry us through the 2020 election

John Adams issued a mantra amidst the American Revolution: "Ours is a country of laws not men." In today's time of turmoil, as President Trump questions the integrity of the upcoming election, the words of the second president should give us some solace.

During the debate, the current president asked for supporters to show up at the polls and "watch carefully," which sounded to some like a form of voter intimidation. Here's some perspective on the laws that govern poll watchers and political activity around polling stations.

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The potential for bigger crowds of partisans at the polls this fall has heightened anxiety around voter intimidation.

Poll watching vs. electioneering: Unpacking more confusion sowed by Trump

President Trump's directive to his supporters "to go into the polls and watch very carefully" has magnified anxiety that the election will soon become marred by violence and voter intimidation.

Since exhorting his allies in last week's debate, the president has not offered more detailed instructions. So it's not altogether clear if he wants fans to go through the process of becoming official partisan observers, who get to be inside voting stations — or if he was encouraging boisterous rallies of loyalists outside thousands of schools and libraries nationwide.

Either way, unnerved voting rights advocates and election officials fear his vague but incendiary call to action will lead to disturbances and chaos. Beyond the confusion between poll watching (formal and strictly overseen) and electioneering (informal and less regulated) are worries about an Election Day imperiled by polarized clashes between the left and the right.

Answers to several questions may help the nation rise above the muddle the president has created, if not the anger.

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How to separate poll watching from voter intimidation

Contributor Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor at the Democracy Fund, went on NPR on Thursday to explain how one of the mechanics of the election — poll watchers — do their work in most states. Her explanation stood in contrast to what President Trump seemed to be calling for in Tuesday's presidential debate. While warning about potential voter fraud, he asked his supporters to "go into the polls and watch very carefully."

Almost every state has some sort of system set up so political parties can send observers inside polling places, explained Patrick, who was previously an elections official in Maricopa County, Arizona (which includes Phoenix). But there are clear rules and limitations about what these observers can do — how close they can be to voting equipment, who they can talk to and what they can challenge. Poll watchers have to sign up ahead of time and work with election officials, she said.

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