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The debate over poll watchers in the 2020 election

Debating poll watchers in the 2020 election
The debate over poll watchers in the 2020 election 04:29

In the run up to November's election, President Donald Trump has frequently railed against mail-in-voting, making unproven claims about widespread fraud.   
But the president has expressed concern about in-person voting, too. As 2020 will be the first presidential contest since 1980 without restrictions on Republican poll watching activity, President Trump has been encouraging his supporters to turnout on Election Day and do more than cast a ballot.

"Gotta be careful with those ballots. Watch those ballots. I don't like it. You know, you have a Democrat governor. You have all these Democrats watching that stuff. I don't like it," he told a crowd of supporters during a rally in North Carolina earlier this month. 

"Watch it. Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all the thieving, and stealing, and robbing they do."


So what are poll watchers, and what are they allowed to do? 
As their name suggests, poll watchers observe what happens at a polling place on Election Day. Appointed — usually by candidates or their political parties — in advance of Election Day, poll watchers monitor polling places to ensure all votes cast are counted correctly and to report any suspected irregularities. They also may look at precinct lists to keep track of who has voted in an effort to see where their party needs to increase voter outreach, a process known as "poll flushing." 

Essentially, partisan poll watchers make sure their party has a fair shot at winning. When adhering to state rules, they can also help preserve the democratic process by ensuring that elections are transparent.  

Importantly, poll watchers are not simply individuals who show up at the precinct on Election Day. Official poll watchers must be identified and approved in advance. Each state has different rules and regulations for the number of poll watchers per precinct, who can be a poll watcher, and what they are allowed to do.  
However, one requirement is held in common nationally: Poll watchers cannot interfere with the ballot process. While some states permit poll watchers to challenge an individual's right to cast a ballot — for example, if the individual lives outside the district, lacks U.S. citizenship, or has already cast a ballot during the same election — those disputes go through poll workers or election officials. If the challenge cannot be resolved immediately, states often allow the individual in question to cast a "provisional" ballot, which is supposed to be counted once the right to vote has been verified. However, provisional ballots are often not counted unless it might make a difference (for example, if the final margin is so close the state goes into a recount). 

It is also worth noting that, in addition to appointed poll watchers, many states permit other registered voters to challenge an individual's eligibility on Election Day. These challengers usually must present a valid reason for questioning a potential voter's right to cast a ballot, such as having personal knowledge that the voter isn't eligible to vote in that precinct. Challengers are not poll watchers; contesting a voter's eligibility is the only action a challenger may take.


One concern about poll watchers — particularly when they are allowed to challenge an individual's eligibility — is that they intimidate voters. Federal law prohibits voter intimidation.

In 1981, the Democrats accused poll watchers dispatched by the Republican National Committee (RNC) of doing just that. During that year's gubernatorial race in New Jersey, the RNC organized a group they called the "National Ballot Security Task Force." Its members, some of whom were armed, off-duty law enforcement officers, wore black armbands and went to predominantly minority polling places. The Democratic National Committee filed a federal suit against the RNC, charging that the group harassed and intimidated Black and Hispanic voters.
In response to the Democrats' suit, the RNC the next year entered into a consent decree in which it admitted no wrongdoing, but pledged in Federal District Court that they would not allow tactics anywhere in the country that could intimidate Democratic voters. Under the decree, Republican Party organizations agreed to allow a federal court to review any proposed so-called "ballot security" programs. 

The consent decree was subsequently updated in 1987, when courts found that the RNC had been engaging in "voter caging" in neighborhoods with large Black and Hispanic populations. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, voter caging is "the practice of sending mail to addresses on the voter rolls, compiling a list of the mail that is returned undelivered, and using that list to purge or challenge voters' registrations on the grounds that the voters on the list do not legally reside at their registered addresses." The practice is more than an unreliable way of questioning eligibility; when it is targeted at minority voters, it is illegal. 

The consent decree had been invoked several times in the ensuing three decades, but in early 2018, a federal court finalized its decision to allow the decree to expire

In an August op-ed in The Washington Post, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel wrote that the decree had been preventing the committee from gathering real-time information about the election process, including which voters had been turned away or required to cast a provisional ballot. 

"In other words: Our access is about more people voting, not fewer," McDaniel wrote. "That's the opposite of Democrats' claims of 'voter suppression.'"


With the consent decree no longer in effect, this year's presidential election is the first since 1980 in which the Republican Party's poll watching activity will not be under court supervision. In response, the party is planning a multi-million dollar effort to monitor what happens at polling places on Election Day. They are attempting to recruit an estimated 50,000 volunteers to act as poll watchers, and they've set aside a $20 million fund for legal battles. 

"I am very worried about it," Marc Elias, the Democratic Party's lead attorney for voting rights, told 60 Minutes. "It's something that I think everyone who cares about voting rights needs to worry about. And it is another example of where the Trump Republican party, rather than atoning for its shameful history, is doubling down on it."

At a Republican event in Wisconsin last December, Justin Clark, senior counsel and deputy campaign manager for President Trump's re-election campaign, told attendees that, when it comes to monitoring the polls, the party needs to start "playing offense."

In an interview with 60 Minutes this summer, he reiterated that idea. 

"Let's make sure that our voters are protected when they go to the polls," he said. "That they know that when they cast their vote, that it counts. That it counts and it's not either thrown out before it gets to the polling place."  

As part of his effort to amass poll watchers, President Trump has tweeted calls for his supporter to sign up. He has also said he would send law enforcement officials to voting locations to guard against voter fraud. 

"We're going to have sheriffs, and we're going to have law enforcement, and we're going to have, hopefully, US attorneys, and we're going to have everybody and attorney generals," Trump said in an August interview with Fox News commentator Sean Hannity.

Federal law prohibits any "civil" or "military" federal officer to order "troops or armed men" to polling places, unless they are needed to "repel armed enemies of the United States." A Department of Defense directive similarly bars DoD and National Guard personnel from conducting "operations" at polling places, and the president does not have the authority to dispatch local sheriffs. 

The fight over poll watchers played out in state court this month in Pennsylvania. President Trump's campaign fought to change state law mandating that poll watchers be a registered voter in the county where they are volunteering. The campaign wanted to widen regulations, allowing poll watchers to monitor precincts in any county.  

Democrats argued that the move was an attempt to intimidate minority voters in cities like Philadelphia, a charge that Republican Jake Corman, the state's senate majority leader, rejected.

"When I go into vote, many times, I don't know who the poll watchers are," he said. "I don't know if they're from Centre County where I live or they're from Philadelphia County or Erie County or Lackawanna County. I have no idea where they're from. And so, it certainly doesn't intimidate me."

On Thursday, the Pennsylvania state supreme court upheld the law. 

The video above was produced by Will Croxton and Brit McCandless Farmer.  

To watch Bill Whitaker's 60 Minutes report "The Battle for the Ballot," click here.

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