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Following President Trump’s call to his supporters to deploy themselves as poll watchers, state and local government officials are working to ensure that voters can cast their ballots without intimidation.
State and local officials in recent days have sought to assure voters that they will not be intimidated when they arrive at their polling places to cast their votes or return absentee ballots for the November election. The reassurances come after President Trump called on his supporters to deploy themselves to the polls to monitor voting.
During the first presidential debate last week, Trump issued a call to his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” as people vote. His son, Donald Trump, Jr., echoed that message in a more official pitch for the campaign, calling on “every able-bodied man, woman to join Army for Trump's election security operation” in a video posted to social media. "We need you to help us watch them. Not just on Election Day, but also during early voting and at the counting boards. President Trump is going to win. Don't let them steal it,” Trump Jr. said.
Several election officials have raised concerns that the president’s rhetoric could encourage voter intimidation if Trump’s supporters unofficially flock to polls to monitor the election instead of relying on designated poll watchers who sign up with election officials to monitor precincts for potential fraud.
Some Democrats have also expressed concerns about the Republican National Committee’s plan to recruit 50,000 official poll watchers, saying they fear these volunteers will try to keep people from legitimately voting. But tapes reviewed by CNN for the Trump campaign’s official poll watchers showed a more measured approach than the one offered by the president. For example, they suggest that poll watchers be courteous and follow rules, particularly if they do challenge a ballot being cast.
A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign defended their approach. “President Trump’s volunteer poll watchers will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally, all valid ballots are counted, and all Democrat rule-breaking is called out,” spokeswoman Thea McDonald told the New York Times.
This is the first presidential election where the Republican Party has not had court oversight of its election operations, which happened as a result of events in the 1980s, when Republicans recruited off-duty police officers to serve as poll watchers in Black and Latino communities.
Most states set clear guidelines around who can serve as a poll worker, often limiting those who are eligible to serve as officially appointed party representatives and nonpartisan observers. Some states impose additional rules—in Pennsylvania, poll watchers have to be registered to vote in the county where they’re watching the polls. In Florida and Michigan, poll watchers aren’t allowed to speak to voters. Georgia and South Carolina also require poll watchers to wear a badge with their name and organization.
In all states, poll watchers are allowed to monitor election administration and keep track of voter turnout. In some states, they’re allowed to challenge a voter’s eligibility and bring concerns to the city or county election administrators.
Local officials in Colorado, which largely conducts elections by mail, say they aren’t concerned about an influx of unofficial poll watchers, while emphasizing they trust in the appointment and certification process for legitimate appointees. But others say they worry about vigilante poll workers who are inspired by Trump’s message to monitor voters. For example, one woman who claimed to be a poll watcher for Trump was kicked out of a Philadelphia satellite election office last week—an incident the president seemed to reference during the debate. But the woman was not certified as a poll watcher; additionally, Philadelphia does not allow poll watchers at satellite election offices because they are not official polling places.
Trump’s campaign this week filed a lawsuit against Philadelphia’s election administrators, arguing that the city’s policy barring poll watchers from satellite election offices established in response to the pandemic is a violation of Pennsylvania election law.
In response to Trump’s statements at the debate, Philadelphia officials said that encouraging people to poll watch for partisan purposes was “problematic” and established an interagency plan to protect against voter intimidation. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said during a press conference on Wednesday that he “intends to make sure that there is no threatening presence at these polls” and that he is “well-prepared and ready to act immediately” should voters be intimidated, misled, threatened, or harmed in the process of voting.
At the same press conference, Mary McCord, the legal director for the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said that she was particularly concerned about vigilante poll watchers because of recent violence at protests in the city. “Because we’ve seen unlawful heavily armed militia organizations usurping law enforcement authority by purporting to ‘protect’ property during peaceful demonstrations, state and local officials must be vigilant in ensuring that these unlawful organizations do not intimidate voters at the polls in the name of ‘protecting’ against election fraud,” McCord said.
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has also issued a report calling on state and local election officials to limit firearms in and near polling places, fearing that the presence of people with guns could lead to intimidation or violence on Election Day. “The fundamental right to vote, vital to our democracy, is endangered by self-proclaimed ‘poll watchers’ with firearms,” the group wrote.
At least one state attorney general is currently reviewing how open carry gun laws can fit with the right to vote without being harassed. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Tuesday called President Trump’s debate comments “dangerous and reckless” and said that she will soon issue a memo to local law enforcement agencies providing guidance on how to prevent voters from being intimidated if poll watchers show up with guns.
“It’s this combination of your right to vote, cross-sectioned with our pretty liberal open carry laws in the state of Michigan,” Nessel said. “It is a legal right to be a poll watcher, but you cannot use those positions to try and interfere with a person’s right to vote. We have to draw the line between what a person can do operating as a legal observer versus what is being done to harass people.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.