Members of the audience cheer during a campaign rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg.

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Donald Trump wants legions of his supporters to leave their hometowns on Election Day and set up shop in Pennsylvania’s cities. He wants to them to watch the polls closely and challenge voter registration. The unspoken directive is to wreak havoc. Make sure Democrats aren’t stacking the voting machines in favor of Hillary Clinton or allowing liberal voters to cast their ballots twice.

“I hope you people can… not just vote on the 8th, [but] go around and look and watch other polling places and make sure that it’s 100-percent fine,” Trump said at an August rally in Altoona. “We’re going to watch Pennsylvania — go down to certain areas and watch… The only way we can lose, in my opinion — and I really mean this, Pennsylvania — is if cheating goes on.”

When Trump talks about poll watching in “certain areas,” his supporters know where he’s referring to. He’s talking about Philadelphia and, to some degree, Pittsburgh — the state’s Democratic strongholds, and places where conservative media (“Call Sean Hannity!” etc.) say voter fraud has happened.

Thousands of “poll watchers” flooding PA cities would make for a juicy Election Day story. But in reality, poll watchers can only operate and challenge voter registration in the counties where they’re registered. Beyond that, typical poll watchers are just people designated to make sure everything at polling places is kept kosher and follows the rules. In the past, they’ve been the people who work to ensure registered voters can have their voices heard — not those trying to silence them.

Sure, it’s possible Republican poll watchers in Pennsylvania could become hostile on Election Day following Trump’s calls to action, causing chaos at the polls and creating an anarchic situation.

It’s just not likely.

What poll watchers are

Think of poll watchers as watchdogs. They’re people designated by campaigns and political committees to make sure election board workers do their jobs, i.e. follow the rules, only permit registered voters and avoid, ya know, stacking the voting machines in favor of a candidate.

At each polling location across Pennsylvania, each party is allowed to designate three watchers and each statewide candidate — in this case, usually presidential candidates — is allowed to designate two watchers, according to Pa. Dept. of State spokeswoman Wanda Murren. However, only one watcher per candidate and one watcher per party are allowed inside a polling location at a time.

“Their primary focus is to observe the process to see if there are any problems, but more importantly, to help campaigns get their voters to the polling place” by alerting their party if turnout is lower than expected, said Ron Hicks, who has served on and off as the appointed solicitor for the Republican Committee of Allegheny County since before the 2004 presidential election.

(This kind of cheesy Dept. of State video does a good job of explaining what the rules are.)

Here’s the key, though: Poll watchers must be credentialed by the county where they’re registered to vote. (Though the year and board of elections have since changed, this is what a certificate looks like in Allegheny County.) That means, despite what Trump asks his supporters to do, hundreds of poll watchers from the state’s more conservative counties won’t be pouring into Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to keep an eye on the polls. It’s not legal.

State legislators are this year considering a bill that would allow poll watchers to operate in counties outside their own. Most of the Republican party in Harrisburg is in favor. But with a Democratic governor and a body that has a hard time even getting essential legislation (like budgets!) done on time, don’t look for uncharacteristically speedy legislation prior to Election Day.

Philadelphia GOP Executive Director Joe DeFelice trains hundreds of poll watchers every year. There’s always an uptick of folks who want to help in presidential election years, but he said that for the most part, his poll watchers are “there doing their average duty.” That means checking voter turnout, giving people rides to the polls and putting signs up outside polling places.

If anyone were coordinating a massive, GOP-backed effort to challenge Democratic voters in Philadelphia en masse, it would be DeFelice. He says he’s not.

GOP attorney Hicks in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, said he doesn’t foresee an influx of Republican watchers from nearby suburbs descending upon bluer Pittsburgh to cause problems. However, both presidential campaigns will likely have hundreds of people on their teams patrolling cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on Election Day.

Both sides will also have attorneys who are elections experts that show up at polling places when a voter’s registration or identity is in dispute.

Poll watchers have specific rules they have to follow to avoid intimidation. While they can keep a list of voters and may challenge the registration of any voter, they can’t interfere with the voting process. That means any challenge that the polling place election board deems is frivolous or aggressive can be reported.

And even if a vote is challenged, the voter can still file a provisional ballot.

City Commissioners in Philadelphia say they don’t frequently see people’s identities being challenged. Mark Wolosik, the Allegheny County elections division manager, said the biggest issue he sees with poll watchers is when people without a certificate claim to be a watcher.

He started as a temp for the elections division in 1970 and said he’s seen very few cases of watchers challenging voters. Even when there was a challenge, the challenger some times wouldn’t appear for the subsequent hearing or would withdraw the complaint, he said.

But Democrats in Allegheny County are still prepared.

“The only way Donald Trump will win is if he somehow creates havoc like this. I’m sure his campaign knows that,” said Dj Ryan, executive director of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.

Ryan said he is concerned that Republicans will designate watchers who are more extreme, forceful and intimidating. “That is our biggest concern: Trump supporters, many of whom are not regular participants of the process, at least at this level. We have to be ready for that.”

Poll watching and voter fraud in PA

Credit: Flickr

The idea and purpose of poll watching shifts in contentious presidential years. Typically, poll watching is for people just helping out on Election Day — people who are working to ensure registered voters are able to have a voice.

In presidential election years, there’s frequently the concern poll watchers are the only people who can catch election fraud.

It’s why people like Fox News’ Sean Hannity have continued to peddle debunked claims about the 2012 election in Pennsylvania. Hannity and others have repeatedly questioned the veracity of Philadelphia’s voter count, as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney failed to garner a single vote in 59 voting divisions in Philadelphia. We’ve told you before about why that’s possible — and totally believable.

DeFelice said poll watchers are a critical step in ensuring voter fraud doesn’t occur. He pointed out that it was a Republican poll watcher who discovered election board members in Philadelphia’s 18th ward added six votes to the machine after polls had already closed. They were subsequently charged with voter fraud and were removed from office.

Voting irregularities do happen. But in 2012, Philadelphia Republican City Commissioner Al Schmidt put out a report that showed in the city, most irregularities are related to clerical errors or confusion related to multiple divisions voting in the same building.

David Thornburgh, head of the statewide political watchdog group Committee of Seventy, said voter fraud is a concern — just not as widespread a problem as Trump has made it out to be.

“It’s easy to pick out anecdotes about what happened in this division or that one, but there’s an old line in the research world that reminds us ‘the plural of anecdotes is not data,’ ” he said. “There is not much data … that suggests that we have encountered massive intentional fraud. And that’s where Donald Trump’s statements were totally irresponsible and just not helpful.”

Why a ‘hostile’ Election Day is unlikely

If you follow Pennsylvania politics, you might have seen this Politico headline last week: “How hostile poll-watchers could hand Pennsylvania to Trump.”

Sure, it’s a good headline. But it’s not really true.

“Everyone around the country is looking for a good ‘Florida 2000-like’ story,” Thornburgh said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen here in Pennsylvania.”

He said while the Election Day process as a whole is “highly imperfect,” it’s “built from the ground up.” In Philadelphia, 1,700 polling places — and another 1,322 in Allegheny County —  are staffed with thousands of volunteers. Each has an independent election board comprised of people selected by their neighbors. Widespread voter fraud would require mass coordination among hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

Those who regulate elections in both Philly and Pittsburgh say they’re expecting a relatively smooth Election Day with some snafus that happen every Election Day, especially those during a presidential year.

“I have not gotten any suggestion that there will be any major problems,” Hicks said. “… Assuming that Allegheny County doesn’t go back to same-day voter registration, I don’t see there being a problem.”

The Politico story warning against “hostile poll-watchers” opens with an anecdote from 2004, with Republicans challenging voters’ credentials at the University of Pittsburgh creating lengthy lines to vote. But Hicks said Republicans were trying to identify people who had registered to vote on Election Day — which isn’t allowed in Pennsylvania — and precincts weren’t given enough provisional ballots.

“It had nothing to do with us challenging voters,” he said.

DeFelice accused Democrats of drumming up Election Day concern. He said despite the 2004 issues in Pittsburgh, “no one can cite an issue with a Republican poll watcher in Philadelphia that would rise to egregious.”

“This is the tactic of the left,” he said. “They create an impression Republicans are doing something to suppress the votes.”

What to look out for

Everyone has to follow rules on Election Day. Worried about poll watchers wreaking havoc at your polling place? Here are the rules they must follow:

  • Poll watchers generally keep track of the voters as they appear to vote. They must be at least six feet away from the area of voting, and they’re allowed to issue good-faith challenges to individual voters based on identity or residency. They may not engage directly with the voter, but should address the challenge to the judge of elections, who enforces polling place activity.
  • Any behavior that interferes with a voter’s right to vote (including overly aggressive or baseless challenges) constitutes intimidation and should be reported.

The window in which a voter can be challenged is brief and would happen after the judge of elections announces your name. Such challenges happen very infrequently, but do happen and can be successful, Allegheny County GOP attorney Hicks said.

Provisional ballots, an affidavit and paper vote people can submit if their vote is challenged at the poll, have helped clear up many issues, he said. The elections division reviews those.

Ask to submit one, Ryan said.

If you think you’ve witnessed any sort of voter fraud — and there are a lot of rules — you’re encouraged to contact your local district attorney. (Do not, as some Trump organizers have suggested, call the FBI.)

Thornburgh also noted that Committee of Seventy has signed on to partner with 866-OUR-VOTE, a national and state voter protection effort, that you can contact with Election Day questions and observations.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.