President Donald Trump’s calls for his supporters to patrol polling places are thrusting a dilemma onto election administrators: They want to protect voters from intimidation, but they also don’t want to depress turnout by amplifying Trump’s plans.
Trump continued his long-running campaign to delegitimize the election results during Tuesday’s debate, calling it a “disaster” in the making, raising unfounded claims of widespread fraud and telling supporters to “go in” and “watch very carefully.” Already, Trump supporters have attempted to monitor or even interrupt early voting in several places, including on Tuesday in Philadelphia. Election staff there said law enforcement escorted a Trump campaign staffer out of a satellite election office in City Hall, because he was not allowed to be there to watch people request or turn in mail ballots in person.
Local officials in Philadelphia and voting rights advocates uniformly condemned Trump’s plans and said they appear likely to disproportionately target voters of color. But they also stressed that voters should remain engaged in the election and not allow uproar around poll-watching to affect them.
“To all our voters in Philadelphia, but in particular the Black and brown community, when there is confusion, that typically leads to people not wanting to participate in the process,” said Philadelphia City Commissioner Omar Sabir, a Democrat. “So now more than ever is the time for you to stand up and let your voice be heard.”
Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting rights group, added that “it's worth being vigilant but not fearful. The goals of voter suppression and voter intimidation are often accomplished by just sowing fear.”
Volunteers and party representatives routinely observe polling places in the U.S. But many states require that poll watchers meet certain qualifications and register in advance, as opposed to simply showing up unannounced, according to a recent review of state laws by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” Trump said in the closing minutes of Tuesday’s debates, when he was asked whether he’d urge his supporters to be calm if results aren’t immediately known.
Trump then claimed that supportive “poll watchers” were stopped in Philadelphia that day — but that was untrue. Actual polling sites have not opened yet in Pennsylvania, though satellite election offices — where voters are able to request and submit mail ballots — are now open.
City election officials said that observers of any party are not permitted in the satellite offices for various reasons: First, they’re offices, not polling places. Second, official poll watchers must be certified by the city, and none have been yet for the Trump campaign. Lastly, election staff said, they are taking precautions to limit the spread of Covid-19.
“Anytime that anybody is suggesting that people go to the polls for any other reason other than encouraging people to be part of the process or whether they are there for a candidate, it’s problematic,” Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa Deeley, the top election official in the city, said. “We want everybody to participate.”
On Tuesday, a deputy sheriff escorted James Fitzpatrick, Trump’s Pennsylvania director of Election Day operations, out of the satellite election office at Philadelphia City Hall, where he was recording video on his cellphone, according to election and sheriff aides. Election officials said Fitzpatrick was being disruptive and refused to leave when asked.
“He was taking pictures and photos while inside the booth, being irate,” said Teresa Lundy, communications chief for the Sheriff’s Office. “He was also being disruptive. … He wasn’t there to be a poll watcher because poll watcher certificates weren’t issued.”
The Trump campaign disputed the characterization.
“Philadelphia election officials are intentionally avoiding accountability and hiding their voting system, as made clear by officials repeatedly denying Trump Campaign observers access to several satellite voting locations in the city,” Thea McDonald, a spokesperson for the president’s campaign, said in a statement. “President Trump is fighting for Philadelphia’s voters and a system that protects every single one of their valid ballots.”
City Commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican, noted that he also asked a person from the Pennsylvania Democratic Party to leave the satellite offices on Tuesday, and that person complied. “There is no mechanism for poll watchers at Board of Elections offices other than when the votes are being tabulated,” Schmidt said.
At least two people with the Trump campaign wanted to enter the satellites, according to election officials. Nick Custodio, a deputy city commissioner, said that one person was videotaping people through a window. “Nobody, when going into places, likes having people filming them,” he said.
Voting rights advocates were quick to warn that they, election officials and the media should not continuously elevate the president’s latest comments, which could turn away voters.
“We have to walk a fine line. We have to be concerned about any and all threats and intimidation at the polling place. On the other hand, we don't want to scare people,” said David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania-based voting group Committee of Seventy, said in an interview. “I encourage folks, as in other aspects of this election, to trust folks at the local level, and turn off your social media, and stop listening to the president and saying whatever he wants to say.”
The Trump campaign threatened a lawsuit if it's not allowed to observe the satellite offices in Pennsylvania.
“Following this egregious lack of transparency from Philadelphia’s City Commissioners, the Trump Campaign demanded their compliance with election law and clearly stated our intent to take President Trump’s fight for a free, transparent election to court if necessary,” McDonald said.
Trump’s calls for election observers have been increasingly urgent, and they mention shows of force that mirror historical voter intimidation practices. In a Fox News interview in August, he said that there would be “sheriffs … law enforcement” and U.S. attorneys watching polls.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, also recently cut a video for the campaign that sounds like a recruitment video, urging supporters to “enlist” to watch the polls. “We need every able-bodied man [and] woman to join an army from Trump’s election security operation,” he said, spreading the same conspiracy theory of widespread fraud that his father pushes. “We need you to help us watch them, not just on Election Day, but also during early voting and at the counting boards.”
“These are essentially vigilantes, saying ‘you need to take justice into their own hands,’” Sabrina Khan, deputy director of the Power & Democracy program at the liberal civil rights group the Advancement Project, said of the Trump campaign’s rhetoric.
The Advancement Project shared “inoculation messaging” that it advises advocates use to speak to voters, saying Trump is doing much “to make it harder for you to successfully vote” and acknowledging it is problematic. But the messaging encourages voters not to leave, but instead to alert election officials and report it to a hotline operated by voting rights groups.
Weiser, of the Brennan Center, stressed that voting rights groups have been mobilizing to counter any intimidation efforts, staffing a voter hotline and putting volunteers on the ground who can help guide voters if they feel intimidated. Local election officials typically have deescalation training as well, and they can call law enforcement as a last resort. Weiser also said voting rights groups are prepared to immediately go to the courts if voters’ rights are being infringed: “There are lines, and there is an infrastructure there to enforce those lines.”
Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, also noted that fears over mass voter intimidation efforts in past years have not materialized, even when Trump urged supporters to go to the polls in 2016.
“He likes the chaos, he wants to create chaos, because he thinks it benefits him,” Albert said. ‘We don't want to give him what he wants, which is fear and intimidation and chaos.”