Poll watchers emerge as a flashpoint in battle over ballots

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FILE – In this Nov. 3, 2020, file photo, an observer watches a polling place on Election Day in Las Vegas. Election officials in key battleground states pushed back on claims by the Trump campaign that Republican poll watchers were being improperly denied access to observe the counting of ballots, saying Thursday that rules were being followed and they were committed to transparency. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Election officials in key battleground states pushed back on claims by the Trump campaign that Republican poll watchers were being improperly denied access to observe the counting of ballots, saying Thursday that rules were being followed and they were committed to transparency.

Tasked this year with monitoring a record number of mail ballots, partisan poll watchers are designated by a political party or campaign to report any concerns they may have. With a few reports of overly aggressive poll watchers, election officials said they were carefully balancing access with the need to minimize disruptions.

“There were certainly a lot of eyes on the process in every absentee counting board all across our state,” said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat and the state’s top election official. “I’m proud of how transparent and secure our process has been. I know that the truth is on our side here.”

Poll watchers have been a central element of legal battles that have erupted in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada. While counting was largely finished in Michigan, the work continued Thursday in Pennsylvania and Nevada where a narrow margin separated President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.

Monitoring polling places and election offices is allowed in most states, but rules vary and there are certain limits to avoid any harassment or intimidation. Monitors are not allowed to interfere with the conduct of the election and are typically required to register in advance with the local election office.

In Nevada’s most populous county, officials said poll watchers were allowed in designated areas, told to comply with social distancing and mask requirements and required to be escorted by county representatives.

“When they sign in, they have to agree to follow the rules that are guided by statute. If they don’t follow the rules … they will be removed from the location,” said Joe Gloria, the chief elections official in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas.

The Trump campaign has sought to halt the counting of mail ballots in the county. They are asking that their poll watchers be granted more access to oversee operations at the county elections office, saying they are kept too far away to be able to see if signatures match voter registration records. 

“There have been a number of mail ballots turned in to Clark County Department of Elections that are being processed without meaningful observation,” said Adam Laxalt, co-chair of the Trump campaign in Nevada. “With the issues that have been reported regarding the election, we are now more than ever concerned with the lack of the transparency in observing and challenging possible invalid ballots.”

In Pennsylvania, disputes over poll watchers were concentrated largely in Philadelphia, where the Trump campaign complained its observers could not get close enough to see whether mail-in ballot envelopes had signatures along with eligible voters’ names and addresses. Ballots without that could be challenged or disqualified. 

But Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said the process is totally open. 

“In Pennsylvania, every candidate and every political party is allowed to have an authorized representative in the room observing the process,” Boockvar said in an interview with CNN. “Some jurisdictions including Philly are also livestreaming, so you can literally watch their counting process from anywhere in the world. It’s very transparent.” 

On Thursday, a state judge ordered Philadelphia officials to allow party and candidate observers to move closer to election workers processing mail-in ballots. Philadelphia appealed the decision soon after.

Voting advocates noted the restrictions applied to both Republican and Democratic poll watchers.

“There are specific rules in Pennsylvania about where poll watchers can stand and what they can do,” said Suzanne Almeida, interim director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. “It applies to both parties equally. Everyone has the exact same access. This is not about disadvantaging one party over another.”

The number of poll watchers allowed at an election office varies. Some smaller offices might allow only a few inside, while larger ones could have dozens. 

Also Thursday, a Michigan judge dismissed a Trump campaign lawsuit over whether enough Republican poll watchers had access to the handling of absentee ballots. 

Much of the dispute centered on Detroit, where absentee ballots were counted at a downtown convention center. Some 134 counting boards were set up, and each party was allowed one poll watcher per board, according to City Clerk Janice Winfrey. 

She said she was not aware of any Republican poll watchers being removed but noted some had been “very aggressive, trying to intimidate the poll workers and processors.”

Ray Wert, who volunteered as a Democratic poll watcher at the site, said he found a group of Republican supporters blocking the entrance and he observed police officers telling the crowd that no additional people were being let inside because there were equal numbers of partisan poll watchers. 

“My concerns are that this is going to be used to delegitimize what is a very clear and very well-run process for counting these ballots,” Wert said.

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