Philadelphia City Commissioners

What's a Poll Watcher? Everything You Need to Know After Trump's Debate Comments

Poll watchers need to register with a county elections board before they are allowed to monitor a polling place on election day.

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What to Know

  • Poll watchers have not been selected yet. They only come out for Election Day.
  • President Trump argued that an unregistered official who was not a voter should have been allowed to observe people registering to vote in Philadelphia.
  • An elections lawyer said the president's comments raise concern about voter intimidation

This Election Day, major political parties will assign some of their members to monitor polling places, just like they have in every election held in the past several decades.

Those monitors, also called poll watchers, are eyes and ears who can report issues at a polling location back to their party, experts say. They can step in if there is a legal issue with a voter being allowed to vote.

But confusion on who can be a poll watcher, and what poll watchers can and can't do, has spread this week, particularly after a misleading claim from Republican President Donald Trump about an elections office in Philadelphia.

In a debate Tuesday night against Democratic candidate Joe Biden, Trump mentioned a "poll watcher" of his who was "thrown out" after trying to observe inside a satellite elections office.

Trump appeared to be referring to an unidentified woman who spoke to a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer outside an elections office in Overbrook Tuesday.

That office is one of seven satellite elections offices that opened in Philly Tuesday. To accommodate a higher volume of mail-in ballots, the City Commissioners opened the offices for voters to register, apply for a mail-in ballot, and even return it. Voters can do that all in one trip at the offices open seven days a week.

According to state officials and experts, a satellite elections office is not a polling place. Therefore, it's not somewhere that a poll watcher could observe.

"These are essentially a place for people to pick up and return their mail ballots," said David Thornburgh of the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on fair government and elections.

"Poll watchers have no rights to come into our house and sit at our kitchen table while we vote [by mail]," Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said in Zoom call with reporters Wednesday. "Nor do they have the ability to go into county elections offices to watch people vote. That you can do in your privacy."

She said she was paraphrasing a point made by Republican Philly City Commissioner Al Schmidt.

Furthermore, the unidentified woman was not registered with elections officials, as all legitimate poll watchers must be. Usually, a party gives elections officials a list of people who will be watching polls. A few days before the election, legitimate poll watchers are given a credential, and stand by on the sidelines. Staff at a polling place know to leave the watcher alone.

"There are no poll watchers yet," Boockvar said. "Those are officially appointed usually a few days before Election Day, and they literally don't exist now."

When NBC10's Rosemary Connors visited the Overbrook elections office Wednesday, there were no Trump campaign folks in sight. Voters with masks on filed into the building and filled out their mail-in ballots before leaving them in the drop box.

"There has been a little bit of apprehension, but they're doing a really good job of explaining the process," said Lee Scottlorde of GirlTrek Philadelphia, a public health nonprofit for African American women and girls.

"There's a sheriff in there standing right over the ballot box. So it feels super secure and safe, and legitimate," said West Philadelphia resident Oliver Strickland.

President Donald Trump took a shot at Philadelphia during his debate with Joe Biden. Trump was upset after people claiming to be from the Trump campaign were turned away from a newly opened satellite elected office on Tuesday in the city. NBC10’s Steven Fisher finds out why.

Preventing Voter Intimidation

With signature checks, apolitical elections boards and other security measures in place, there is little evidence to claims that fraud is a major problem in our elections, experts say.

But Trump has repeatedly claimed that there is fraud in American elections - in July, he even suggested moving the date of the election to combat that. And one of Trump's sons recently urged followers to join an "election security army" to watch polling places.

"His supporters can’t just go drive to Philadelphia and show up at polling places," elections lawyer Sean Morales-Doyle said. He noted that officials would kick those people out like they did in Overbrook Tuesday.

"So it’s less the fear that they would allow it, and more that it’s simultaneously him [Trump] undermining faith in our election by insisting there’s bad things going on...and that his statements instill fear and intimidate voters," Morales-Doyle said.

"The law and the norms that we’ve established around the law are there for good reason, because we want voters to be able to walk into a polling place to be able to vote freely, without influence, without pressure, and without anything that looks like intimidation," said Thornburgh.

Morales-Doyle noted that this is the first election where the GOP doesn't have to presubmit its "election security" plans to a federal court for review.

The Republican Party was locked into that habit ever since a 1982 lawsuit. According to the case documents, members of a GOP-affiliated "National Ballot Security Task Force" stood outside polling places in mostly minority neighborhoods in New Jersey and prevented some people from voting. They even had posters that said their task force was patrolling the area.

Courts can still strike down "election security" efforts that may be unlawful, but they will react instead of acting ahead of time, Morales-Doyle said.

Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that Republican poll watchers will check voter rolls to see who hasn't voted, which will help the party in last-minute calling and knocking on doors on election day.

Legitimate Poll Watching

Parties and candidates are allowed to appoint watchers who can observe their polling place where they live, or another polling place in that county, said Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary of State Jonathan Marks.

But the process requires credentials from the counties, Marks said.

Thornburgh was more direct.

"It’s not an open sort of free-for-all where anybody who shows up, who represents himself as part of a campaign or candidate, can show up to a voting booth and start poking around,” Thornburgh said.

"The election code doesn't necessarily define what the credentials look like, but in most counties, when a candidate or political party submits a request, they'll submit a list of individuals that they want to have watcher certificates," Marks said.

Then the county issues a formal certificate, usually on letterhead, that will have the name of the poll watcher who was registered with the county. Poll workers inside a polling place are trained to accept those credentials and let registered poll watchers do their job, Marks added.

A legitimate poll watcher credential will usually be on county letterhead with the county seal.

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