When Donald Trump was in Manheim, Pennsylvania, Saturday, he again urged his followers not just to vote, but to watch out for cheating at the state’s polling places.
Five weeks from Election Day, some Republicans warn that corrupt Democrats in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other places will steal votes by the thousands, like they always do.
And some Democrats and progressives warn that Republicans are gearing up a massive voter intimidation effort to suppress the vote and let Trump steal Pennsylvania.
“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.”
Having spent a couple of days surveying the terrain, my guess is that both fears are largely groundless, and Election Day will be pretty smooth, as it usually is.
Churning up 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.
If enacted, poll watchers from the middle of the state could stream into Philadelphia (or vice versa) challenging voters and creating havoc.
The Politico piece notes a provision in the state election code provides that any poll watcher (or any 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 to also sign an affidavit that this person is who they claim to be.
It’s odd that the burden is on voters to find a witness to vouch for them. The Brennan Center for Justice says this provision is unusual and troublesome.
Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary of State Marian Schneider told me that 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.
Election law experts I spoke with also noted that voters from the neighborhood are probably known to the election board and can easily get a witness on the spot anyway.
Challenging the system
One guy who knows something about this is Howard Cain, who was a Democratic field operative for 25 years. He told me 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, and he organized teams in 53 polling places to respond quickly and get 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.
The truth is it takes a lot of effort to recruit hundreds of people, train them and dispatch them to unfamiliar polling places. And so far, field organization has not been the Trump organization’s strong suit. The campaign didn’t respond to my requests for comment.
Voter fraud – is it real?
Joe DeFelice is executive director of the Republican Party in Philadelphia. I went to his office in Northeast Philadelphia to talk about fraud and voter challenges.
He said, yeah, he’s working with the state party to recruit poll watchers, but 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, 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 by the way, 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. I asked DeFelice if there is such a plan.
“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.”
If you’re cynical you’d say yeah, he could be lying, and planning all sort of things.
I don’t think so. I’ve watched DeFelice operate for a few years now, and my sense is that he works hard, thinks long term and follows the rules.
I also checked in with state Republican Party chairman Rob Gleason. He said sure, the party want to get as many poll watchers as it can, and who knows what goes on down in Philadelphia?
But he said there are no plans for indiscriminate voter challenges. He wants every qualified voter to be able to cast a ballot.
Before we hung up, I asked him if he shared Trump’s stated view 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.”