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Poll watching is legal, voter intimidation is not. Which does Trump actually want?

Both parties and outside observers field poll watchers every election. This year, the president has made the concept more fraught.

Poll watching is legal, voter intimidation is not. Which does Trump actually want?
Early voters line up outside of the Franklin County Board of Elections Office on October 6, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. [Photo: Ty Wright/Getty Images]

“They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things.” At the first presidential debate, President Trump continued to question the integrity of the election, suggesting that volunteers sympathetic to his candidacy had been forbidden from  poll watching—”a safe, very nice thing”—during early voting in the city.

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In fact, poll watching (when done correctly) is, in most states, a legal right that’s rooted in democracy, allowing ordinary citizens to observe voting at the ballot box. Poll watchers may look out for suspicious incidents such as voters being turned away, as well as logistical issues like machines breaking, ballots running out, and lines getting too long, and report them back to campaigns or election authorities.

I don’t know where people think they’re going to go track down mail ballots as poll watchers.”

Most poll watchers are partisan, meaning they’re sent by political parties or campaigns to ensure their candidate is getting a fair shot at winning. There are also academic poll watchers, conducting research, and nonpartisan poll watchers, often sent by nonprofit organizations, who check that elections are proceeding legitimately. There are sometimes international watchers, from one of the 57 member countries of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which have had the right to observe other nations’ elections since 1990.

Each state treats the practice differently, both with regard to qualifications and procedures. In Wisconsin, any member of the public may monitor polls; in Florida, it’s reserved for registered voters from the specific county in which they’re observing. In Louisiana, only one poll watcher can operate per precinct—except for a single designated “super watcher” who can monitor all the precincts in an assigned parish. In Kansas, 14- to 17-year-olds may monitor polls, while in Georgia, all poll watchers must wear identification badges. In West Virginia, poll watchers may not monitor voting at all during the day—but may witness ballot counting after closing.

In Pennsylvania, poll watching may only occur on Election Day. It’s not permitted in the satellite offices that have been set up especially for “absentee in-person voting,” which is a form of early voting in the state where individuals can request and receive an absentee ballot right away, and file their mail-in vote on the spot. Trump’s claim about Philadelphia seemed to reference partisan monitors who were rightly turned away from these offices. The Trump campaign has since filed a lawsuit against the city, which repeats the claim that “bad things are happening in Philadelphia.”

The president has consistently lied about the integrity of the election and the substantial existence of voter fraud, much of which he ties to the increase in mail-in voting. “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” he said on the debate stage. But what he thinks is being watched is unclear. In Oregon and Washington, two states that have voted primarily by mail for many election cycles, observers are allowed to watch ballot counting, since they can’t view the voting process. But, in other states that have only just set up their vote-by-mail infrastructures, laws are hazier. “I think this is just part of a general effort to try to create confusion and concern,” says Robert Brandon, president and CEO of the Fair Elections Center. “He’s riling up people, because it fits the narrative that, somehow, all these votes that are going get cast are illegal. I don’t know where people think they’re going to go track down mail ballots as poll watchers.”

Poll watching has historically been done with peaceful and constructive motives. This year, there have been some legitimate recruitment drives for poll monitors. Democracy Demands Action, an offshoot of gun reform group Moms Demand Action, has so far recruited 24,000 nonpartisan monitors across 30 states (and expects a total of 35,000 to 40,000), where they’ll be working with state officials to ensure poll watchers comply with laws, according to its partner, Election Protection, a coalition of voting rights activists with many years’ experience of poll observation, and run by The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Those monitors, wearing PPE, will aim to assist voters who complain about registration problems or voter intimidation, and to check for “long lines, police presence, electioneering concerns, and ballot drop box accessibility.” If necessary, a poll monitor will encourage the voter to report any issue via the the group’s specially established hotline (866-OUR-VOTE), after which it’d be escalated by phone volunteers to the relevant state partners, and then to election officials to resolve the problem. (If unaddressed, it could result in lawsuits against election boards.)

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Historically, there have been clear instances of malfeasance by poll watchers.

Election Protection trains its monitors on the escalation of perceived problems; on a state’s sometimes obscure election laws, through written documents for each state; and on the importance of hiding personal political beliefs. This year, the organization is adding training on conflict de-escalation and anti-violence at polling places. One of their sessions is led by Over Zero, a group that teaches to “prevent, resist, and rise above identity-based violence.”

But while poll monitoring is legal, it can sometimes cross into the territory of voter intimidation. Often, partisan watchers have the right to challenge someone’s eligibility to vote. In Texas, it’s the only reason a poll watcher is allowed to talk to election officials (and they cannot talk to voters); in Rhode Island, there are specific challengers whose roles are separate to observers. Historically, there have been clear instances of malfeasance by poll watchers. In 1981, Republican poll watchers in New Jersey demanded to check voter registration cards of racial minorities during the state’s gubernatorial race. In 1999, a monitoring group in Michigan singled out Arab-American voters, who then had to prove their citizenship to election officials.

Currently, the Trump campaign is organizing its own partisan poll watcher recruitment, and the Republican National Committee (RNC) set a goal of enlisting 50,000 volunteers. In a recent online video, Donald Trump Jr. says: “We need every able-bodied man and woman to join Army for Trump’s election security operation at defendyourballot.com.” The Army for Trump website says enrolled volunteers will be involved in get-out-the-vote drives, and “other Election Day activities such as precinct coverage.” Facebook recently announced it would ban all future military-themed content about poll watching on its platform, but Trump Jr.’s video is still accessible.

In an email to Fast Company, RNC spokeswoman Mandi Merritt said: “While one of the legitimate purposes for poll watching is to observe the elections process to document potential fraud or irregularities, it’s just as much about getting out the vote. It’s about getting more people to vote, not less.” She also added that all poll watchers would receive “rigorous training” tailored to each state’s process. “We make very clear to volunteers they need to be respectful and polite, and are not there to be intimidating.”

But the militaristic rhetoric of the recruitment drive echoes many events of the past year, where armed gangs in army garb have protested lockdowns and intimidated protestors, leading to concerns about this type of vigilantism appearing at the polls. Brandon, though, remains optimistic, based on his past experience, that poll watchers will be wary of causing trouble, conscious that voter intimidation is a “violation of the law,” punished by a fine or imprisonment. He’s encouraging people to simply make a plan for voting and follow it. “We tell everybody that the last thing you want to do is not vote,” he said, “because somebody has something vague about discouraging you from voting.”

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