Republicans are mobilising thousands of volunteers to watch early voting sites and ballot drop boxes leading up to November’s election, part of an effort to find evidence to back up President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated complaints about widespread voter fraud.
Across key battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin, Republican poll watchers will be searching for irregularities, especially with regard to mail-in ballots whose use is surging amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to more than 20 officials involved in the effort. They declined to say how many volunteers have signed up so far; the campaign earlier this year said its goal was to recruit 50,000 monitors nationwide.
The mission, the officials said, is to capture photos and videos Republicans can use to support so-far unfounded claims that mail voting is riddled with chicanery, and to help their case if legal disputes erupt over the results of the November 3 contest between Republican incumbent Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden.
The campaign is already posting material of activity it claims is suspicious, including video of a Trump campaign observer being turned away from an early voting site in Philadelphia last month. The city says monitors are welcome in polling stations on Election Day but are not permitted in early voting facilities.
Some voting-rights activists are concerned such encounters could escalate in a tense year that has seen armed militias face off against protestors in the nation’s streets.
Poll watching by partisan observers is a normal feature in U.S. elections that dates back to the 18th century and is subject to various state laws and local rules.
Still, this year’s operation by the Trump campaign is highly unusual, voting rights advocates say, both in its focus on early voting and in its emphasis on finding evidence to support baseless assertions by the president and his supporters that Democrats plan to flood the system with phony mail ballots to steal the election.
In a recruitment video posted on Twitter in September seeking volunteers for this “Army for Trump,” the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., made the unfounded claim that Democrats plan to “add millions of fraudulent ballots” to rig the results. Trump repeatedly has refused to commit to accepting the outcome of November’s election. During the September 29 presidential debate, he exhorted his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.”
Mail ballot requests are tilting heavily to Democrats in battleground states, which likely means Biden will be in the lead before in-person voting begins on Election Day.
In Florida, where Republicans have historically relied on mail ballots, nearly 2.5 million Democrats have requested them, compared with about 1.7 million Republicans. In Pennsylvania, more than 1.5 million Democrats have requested a mail-in ballot, nearly triple the requests from Republicans.
Republicans said they plan to monitor every step of mail voting, including setting up cameras to show people dropping off multiple ballots at drop boxes. Some states permit third-parties to drop off ballots, but the practice is banned in others, including Pennsylvania.
Pat Dion, head of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, a politically divided suburb near Philadelphia, predicted the process could get messy.
“There’s going to be lots of watchers, lots of cameras and lots of attorneys all across the country. It’s going to be chaotic,” said Dion, who said he nevertheless supports the effort.
Democrats and voting-rights advocates say Trump is trying to suppress the vote, not protect it.
“It’s an attempt to scare eligible Americans into thinking they are in danger if they go to vote,” said Myrna Perez, voting rights and elections director for the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan voting rights group.
Democrats say Trump’s team is also laying the groundwork for a challenge to mail ballots in the event he loses, possibly throwing the election to Congress or the courts to decide the outcome.
Trump campaign spokeswoman Thea McDonald said in a statement that “President Trump’s volunteer poll watchers will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally. And if fouls are called, the Trump Campaign will go to court to enforce the laws.”