Can Pro-Trump Poll Watchers Disrupt Voting In Pennsylvania?

Oct 9, 2016
Originally published on October 9, 2016 1:45 pm

A version of this story was published by NewsWorks.

When Donald Trump was in Manheim, Pa., recently, he urged his followers not just to vote but also to watch out for cheating at the state's polling places.

It's a call to action the Republican nominee has made before — one many fellow Republicans have supported as a way to protect the integrity of the electoral process and one most Democrats claim is a thinly-disguised attempt to suppress voters from exercising their right to the ballot box.

Trump has solicited poll watchers more than once in Pennsylvania, a state key to his prospects for victory.

"How Hostile Poll Watchers Could Hand Pennsylvania to Trump," screams a headline in Politico, noting that "the state's unique rules make it vulnerable to mischief."

Turning out the troops

It's true that Trump's website invites supporters to sign up as Election Day observers for the campaign.

And there's a bill in Pennsylvania's Republican-controlled legislature to expand the reach of poll watchers, permitting them to patrol voting sites across the state, not just in their home counties as current law allows. That means if enacted, poll watchers from the middle of the state could stream into Philadelphia (or vice versa), challenging voters and creating havoc.

As the Politico piece notes, a provision in the state election code provides that any poll watcher or other voter in the polling place at the time can challenge the identity or residency of someone showing up to vote.

And, in such a circumstance, the law requires the challenged voter to sign an affidavit attesting to his or her identity and residence, and to find a witness from the precinct who can also sign an affidavit vouching for the voter's identity.

According to Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary of State Marian Schneider, there's case law that says there must be a rational basis for a voter challenge. If the voter doesn't sign the affidavit or find a witness, she noted, he or she can vote by provisional ballot.

Challenging the system

The truth is it takes a lot of effort to recruit hundreds of people, train them, and dispatch them to unfamiliar polling places to challenge voters en masse. But Howard Cain, who was a Democratic field operative for 25 years, says mass challenges aren't really about disqualifying voters.

"You don't have to be successful in these challenges," he said. "You just have to create enough confusion and temporary chaos at a polling place so that people go, 'I'm not going to stay here and put up with this nonsense, I'm out of here.' That's what the real goal is."

But do mass voter challenges really happen?

Cain said Democrats in Pennsylvania were expecting one in the 2004 presidential election, so he organized teams in 53 polling places to quickly respond with election lawyers.

"It didn't happen," he said — at least not in Philadelphia. There were reports of mass challenges at one Pittsburgh polling place in 2004, and one at a Lincoln University polling place in 2008. But mostly, it was pretty quiet.

Cain said he's never witnessed a mass voter challenge, which is one reason the election code provisions around it are so little-known.

And so far, field organization has not been the Trump campaign's strong suit. The campaign didn't respond to requests for comment.

Voter fraud – is it real?

Joe DeFelice, executive director of the Republican Party in Philadelphia, is working with the state party to recruit poll watchers, but he says that's nothing new: For several years, he's been recruiting Republicans to serve on election boards and act as poll watchers in places where Democrats dominate, and, he said, get into mischief.

"It's just fair elections," he said. "You know, people like to say there's nothing going on, but I can cite instances. You see in the 18th Ward in 2014, we had an entire election board adding votes to the machine at the end of the night."

He's right. In that case, the election board saw after the polls closed that somehow six more voters had signed in to vote than there were votes on the machine.

So the Democrats on the board, who knew each other, apparently rang up six votes, presumably for Democrats.

This time, there was a Republican poll watcher in the building. He reported what he saw, and four election workers faced criminal charges.

Al Schmidt, who co-chairs the Philadelphia City Commission which supervises elections, has been reporting cases of vote tampering to the district attorney's office, and they've taken them seriously.

Schmidt recalled nine or 10 such prosecutions in the past few years. So voter fraud does happen. But Schmidt said these cases haven't involved the kind of voter impersonation that would be remedied by a voter-ID law, and they typically involve a few votes, and often to influence a down-ballot race such as state representative or committeeperson.

"I have not seen any examples of really widespread, coordinated voter fraud," he said. Schmidt is a Republican, respected by members of both parties in Philadelphia.

Is it going to get crazy?

Whether there's widespread fraud or not, mass challenges in Democratic areas could create Election Day problems. But Joe DeFelice of the Philadelphia GOP says there is no plan to do so.

"No!" he said. "Look, anything that comes to Philadelphia is going to be run through me. I mean, look, if there's a valid reason to challenge a voter, then by all means, we'll do it. Is there an open plan to challenge? No, there's not."

State Republican Party chairman Rob Gleason agreed, saying there are no plans for indiscriminate voter challenges. He said he wants every qualified voter to be able to cast a ballot.

Asked about Trump's claims that if he doesn't win Pennsylvania, it's because there is cheating:

"No," he said after a pause. "That's not my view. I think Mr. Trump is going to win Pennsylvania. But if he doesn't, it will be because he didn't get enough votes."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If Donald Trump doesn't win the presidential election, it could be for a variety of reasons. The Republican nominee himself has implied the vote could be stolen from him, and his focus has been on Pennsylvania. From member station WHYY, Dave Davies reports.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Trump began sounding the alarm in August, saying he could only lose Pennsylvania if there's cheating. At a rally last weekend, he returned to the theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: And you've got to get everybody you know and you've got to watch your polling booths because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania, certain areas.

DAVIES: By which he and other Republicans mean heavily Democratic parts of the state such as Philadelphia. Trump's website invites supporters to sign up as Election Day observers. That and his rhetoric about a rigged system has fueled fears Republican poll watchers will intimidate Democratic voters and drive down turnout. The state election code does make it easy to challenge voters.

AL SCHMIDT: An election board worker or a poll watcher can challenge an individual's right to vote based on identity and saying this is not that person.

DAVIES: That's Al Schmidt, who co-chairs the Philadelphia Election Board. If challenged, voters must sign affidavits attesting to their identity. And there's more.

SCHMIDT: And the voter has to produce a witness from the precinct or from the division to also sign an affidavit saying that this person is who they claim to be.

DAVIES: That's right, the burden is on voters to find a witness to vouch for them. The Brennan Center for Justice says this provision is unusual and troubling. State election officials say in practice, voters from the neighborhood are usually known to the election board and can easily get a witness on the spot. If they can't, they can vote by provisional ballot. Howard Cain was a Democratic field operative for 25 years. He says mass challenges aren't really about disqualifying voters.

HOWARD CAIN: You don't have to be successful in these challenges. You just have to create enough confusion and temporary chaos at a polling place so that people go, I'm not going to stay here and put up with this nonsense. I'm out of here. That's what the real goal is.

DAVIES: But do mass voter challenges really happen? Cain says Democrats in Pennsylvania were expecting one in the 2004 presidential election, and he organized teams in 53 polling places to respond quickly.

CAIN: And it never came to pass.

DAVIES: There were reports of mass challenges at one Pittsburgh polling place that year, but mostly it was pretty quiet. Will this year be different? For years, Philadelphia Republican Party director Joe DeFelice has recruited poll watchers to get into places where Democrats dominate.

JOE DEFELICE: It's just fair elections. You know people, like to say there's nothing going on. I mean, I can cite instances. You know, in the 18th Ward in 2014, we had an entire election board adding votes to the machine at the end of the night.

DAVIES: He's right. In that case, a Republican poll watcher reported what he saw and four election workers faced criminal charges. Election board co-chair Al Schmidt says there have been several proven cases of voter tampering in recent years, but they typically involve just a few votes to influence a down-ballot race.

SCHMIDT: I have not seen any examples of really widespread, coordinated voter fraud.

DAVIES: Whether there's widespread fraud or not, mass challenges in Democratic areas could create Election Day problems. Is there such a plan? Joe DeFelice, the GOP director, says...

DEFELICE: No. Look, anything that comes through Philadelphia is going to be run through me. And look, if there's a valid reason to challenge a voter, by all means we'll do it. Is there an open plan to challenge voters? No, there's not.

DAVIES: Training and deploying hundreds of poll watchers to challenge Democrats would be a formidable logistical task. And so far, the Trump campaign has struggled to build an extensive organization in Pennsylvania. For NPR News, I'm Dave Davies in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.