One of the easiest questions President Trump was asked during Tuesday night’s debate was if he would commit to not declare victory until the election results were independently certified. If the president were wearing an earpiece (and if he and his campaign weren’t actively trying to steal the election), this is when one of his advisers might have instructed him to “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PLEASE JUST SAY YES AND MOVE ON!”
Instead, Trump ignored the question and launched into a plea for his supporters to swarm the polls to make sure Democrats aren’t tampering with ballots — or whatever he’s trying to convince people is happening. “I urge my supporters to go to the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” Trump said.
He went on to complain that his supporters were thrown out of the polls in Philadelphia earlier on Tuesday because of the “bad things” happening in the city. In reality, the Trump campaign does not have anyone approved to watch polls in Philadelphia, where mail-in votes are currently being processed at satellite election offices that also offer voter services. Trump’s supporters who stormed these offices were forced to leave, as no votes were actually being cast on the premises. “They’re called poll watchers,” Trump griped. “A very safe, very nice thing.”
Poll watching can be a very safe and very nice thing, but it isn’t just random people in MAGA hats the president has summoned to descend on polling places. This can lead to voter intimidation. In fact, it already has. Earlier this month, a group of flag-toting Trump supporters obstructed voters from entering a polling place in Fairfax, Virginia, forcing officials to open up another portion of the facility.
This is voter suppression, it’s fundamentally anti-democratic, and it’s exactly what Trump was calling for emphatically Tuesday night at the debate. He wants more of this.
— Anthony Tilghman (@AnthonyTilghman) September 19, 2020
The incident in Virginia came barely a week after Trump told rally-goers in North Carolina to head monitor the polls. “Watch it,” he said. “Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do. Because this is important.”
Now is probably a good time to re-iterate that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. There wasn’t any evidence of it in 2016. There isn’t any evidence of it this year. Trump is lying in order to cast doubt on the election results should he lose.
The actual “very safe, very nice” version of poll watching involves obtaining approval from state officials to monitor polling places on behalf of a candidate. Different states allow for different types of poll watching. The National Conference of State Legislatures has compiled a list of poll-watching guidelines in each state. Colorado only allows one per party per polling place. North Dakota requires observers to wear a badge denoting them as such, along with the candidate they are representing. West Virginia does not permit poll watchers in polling places, instead placing the onus on election officials.
Nary a state allows for a candidate to sic throngs of his supporters on polling sites to “watch very carefully” as they see fit.
Election observation is not something anyone can simply *go and do.* It requires training. It requires restraint. The fact that the President is encouraging his supporters to "go and watch" is inviting voter intimidation and potentially violence.
— Nina Jankowicz (@wiczipedia) September 30, 2020
What poll watchers are able to do at voting sites also varies by state. They can ensure votes are counted correctly and report anything strange to election officials. They can tally votes and report back to the candidate they are representing. They can also in some states challenge the voting status of people casting their ballots, although this must be done through an election official. If such a case arises, the voter in question is usually able to cast a provisional ballot.
This last point, the ability to challenge the voting status, raises some red flags considering the GOP’s penchant for voter intimidation, as well as the Trump campaign’s push to dispatch thousands of poll watchers to swing states. “Republicans will be ready to make sure the polls are being run correctly, securely, and transparently as we work to deliver the free and fair election Americans deserve,” Trump campaign general counsel Matthew Morgan told CNN.
It’s unclear what this effort is going to look like on the ground, or what other legal loopholes the campaign may attempt to scurry through in order to suppress the vote at polling places in key states. But sanctioned poll watchers are something entirely different from what Trump was calling for Tuesday night, which was for mobs of his supporters to sow chaos at voting places. The president needs this to happen because he needs maximum chaos to leverage a victory declaration, regardless of whether the election results have independently verified.