One of the standout moments from the first presidential debate came when President Trump urged supporters to become “poll watchers” in reaction to unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. Critics say that this kind of rhetoric is a dangerous path towards voter suppression. Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward explains how overly aggressive poll watching can cross a line into voter intimidation.
JON WARD: One of the standout moments from the first presidential debate came when President Trump called on his supporters to become poll watchers.
CHRIS WALLACE: Will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified? President Trump, you go first.
DONALD TRUMP: I'm urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that's what has to happen. I am urging them to do it.
JON WARD: Now there are legitimate reasons to have poll watchers, and both parties do it. The rules vary a little from state to state and from county to county. But by and large, poll watchers must be registered voters in a given precinct or county. They must be officially certified at their polling place. And they are allowed to observe for irregularities. And they can also report back to their political parties about how many voters have shown up. However, they are not allowed to directly interfere with anyone casting a ballot.
Poll watchers also can't just show up on Election Day and wait outside the polling place looking tough or cause disturbances that could lead to delays, long lines, and voters becoming discouraged or fearful. That's voter intimidation. And it's something that was addressed in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. However, it still does happen at times. As Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey put it--
MAURA HEALEY: Voter intimidation is real. If you thought you could win an election outright fairly, you wouldn't have to play games, and you wouldn't have to try to steal it.
JON WARD: But in an election where it's possible the result won't be known right away, it almost sounded like that's exactly what Trump was asking for.
DONALD TRUMP: As you know today, there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They are called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren't allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.
JON WARD: Now here's what actually happened. Philadelphia opened satellite voting centers for the first time this year on Tuesday. And in at least one location, a woman who said the Trump campaign had hired her to in her words oversee the integrity of the election was turned away by election officials.
"The Philadelphia Inquirer" reported that the Trump campaign currently does not have any poll watchers approved in Philadelphia. And the woman did not present a certificate stating the campaign had selected her to watch the polls. Even if they had, the 17 satellite voting centers in Philadelphia are actually different from a fully-operational early polling place. And poll watchers are not allowed to observe at these satellite centers.
Trump has tried to set up confrontations between his supporters and voters in urban areas who tend to be Democrats for years. In 2016, he told supporters in a rural part of the state that, in his words, it is so important for you to go out and watch other communities.
But just this month, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court blocked Republicans from allowing poll watchers outside their own county. The Trump campaign and the Republican Party have appealed the State Supreme Court's ruling to the US Supreme Court. And that appeal is pending.
Of course, even one ballot lost or discarded without being counted is wrong. And elections officials work hard to try to prevent that. In addition, cheating is subject to serious criminal prosecution as occurred in the case of an election worker in Philadelphia who pled guilty earlier this year to adding a total of 113 extra votes over three different elections from 2014 to 2016.
But the president's false claims that these isolated small incidents add up to a grand plot are ironically the most serious threat to this election according to the Republican Party's own top election attorney for the last two decades. Benjamin Ginsberg led the Republican legal fight in the 2000 presidential recount. And he advised every Republican nominee since then, including Donald Trump. He said this in a "Washington Post" op-ed.
"As a Republican lawyer who has spent four decades monitoring elections and looking for fraud, I can say with confidence that evidence to support the president's words and threatened actions does not exist. The president has consistently been behind in the polls. And his aim appears to be seeding chaos in order to somehow cling to power."