Pennsylvania could expand range of poll workers — before Election Day

     Every four years, Philadelphia voters elect members of neighborhood election boards, the folks who sit at folding tables and run polling places.(Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks, file)

    Every four years, Philadelphia voters elect members of neighborhood election boards, the folks who sit at folding tables and run polling places.(Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks, file)

    Last month, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump claimed the only way he would lose Pennsylvania in the presidential election would be through voter fraud.

    “The only way we can lose, in my opinion, I really mean this, Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on,” he told a rally in Altoona in August.

    Now, lawmakers in Harrisburg are weighing a bill that would expand who can act as a candidate’s eyes and ears at Pennsylvania polling places this November.

    A larger pool of lookouts

    On Election Day, poll watchers monitor voting places, looking for misconduct.

    That extends to what poll workers eat for lunch.

    “My opponent used to take in hoagies to the poll workers, with his name on the hoagie [wrapper],” said HB 29 lead sponsor Rick Saccone, a Republican state representative whose district lies south of Pittsburgh. “You’re not allowed to do that.”

    While anyone can complain about say, sub-delivery-as-subliminal-messaging, state law gives poll watchers, who must be recruited by a campaign or party and certified by local election commissioners, additional rights.

    Watchers not only can compare actual voters with the local rolls, but they may challenge any voter on the spot and require proof of eligibility, something that can cross over into intimidation.

    Saccone’s bill would allow candidates to recruit poll watchers from a larger pool by lifting the provision requiring they live in the same county as the site they’ve been invited to monitor. That, he said, would help candidates running for statewide positions or whose districts straddle many counties.

    “I think it prevents intimidation,” said Saccone. “When I think of intimidation, I think of that time in Philadelphia where there were [New] Black Panthers outside threatening people,” he said, referring to allegations from 2008 that U.S. Department of Justice later dropped under controversial circumstances.

    He denies that the bill, which he introduced in January, is politically motivated or would result in watchers traveling great distances to monitor polling places.

    “It’s not clear what problem this solves, and it’s hard to pull this apart from the politics that are swirling around out there,” said David Thornburgh, president of the nonpartisan good government group Committee of 70.

    Following remarks about voter fraud in Pennsylvania, Trump called on supporters to scout for any misrepresentations on Election Day and is signing up observers on his campaign website.

    Thornburgh said fast-tracking a change to voting law this close to an election makes him “leery,” and pointed to other possible voting reforms, such as better training for poll workers, that have been shown to boost voters’ confidence in the electoral process.

    Who watches poll watchers?

    With more than 550,000 people on the rolls, Montgomery County has the third most voters in the state.

    The county board of elections is charged with running elections, including credentialing poll watchers, up to two per polling place per candidate.

    In past elections, complaints from or about poll watchers to the board have been few, said chair Val Arkoosh, who is also a county commissioner.

    “We have really had no problems with this process and complaints have been extremely rare,” she said.

    If complaints arise from poll watchers or from voters who feel intimidated, judges of election are on hand to address them.

    After languishing for eight months, House Bill 29 has been recently revised by the House and propelled into committee. If passed, it would go into effect immediately.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.