So far, Trump’s "army" of poll watchers looks more like a small platoon

Despite appeals from the president and his son, few of his supporters have shown up to watch early voting.

By Jessica Huseman
November 3, 2020 8:23AM (UTC)
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Armed members of the far-right Proud Boys groups stand guard during a memorial for Patriot Prayer member Aaron Jay Danielson on September 5, 2020 in Vancouver, Washington. Danielson was shot and killed on Saturday, August 29 during a pro-Trump rally in Portland, Oregon. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on ProPublica.

Donald Trump Jr. looked straight into a camera at the end of September as triumphant music rose in a crescendo. "The radical left are laying the groundwork to steal this election from my father," he said. "We cannot let that happen. We need every able-bodied man and woman to join the army for Trump's election security operation."

It was an echo of what his father, President Donald Trump, has said in both of his presidential campaigns. At a September campaign rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the president encouraged his audience to be poll watchers. "Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do," he said. "Because this is important."

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But the poll-watching army that the Trumps have tried to rally hasn't materialized. Although there's no official data, election officials across the country say that they have seen relatively few Republican poll watchers during early voting, and that at times Democratic poll watchers have outnumbered the GOP's. In Colorado and Nevada, where the Trump campaign was particularly active in recruiting poll watchers, its efforts largely petered out.

Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state in Georgia, ­a swing state experiencing a record voter turnout, said both county governments and political parties can supply poll watchers in Georgia. Most are showing up in Fulton County, whose seat is Atlanta.

"I am receiving reports of a few thousand poll watchers from a variety of left-leaning groups. There are very few poll watchers from right-leaning groups," she said. "The Trump campaign is simply calling for additional poll watchers because they know there is a dearth of right-leaning poll watchers."

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Although Kentucky election law doesn't allow for poll watchers, the parties can have registered "challengers" at the polls on Election Day whose only job is to challenge a voter's eligibility. In Fayette County, home of Lexington, Republicans have submitted only seven names of challengers while Democrats have submitted 117. Don Blevins Jr., the clerk in the county, says he doesn't know how many will actually show up on Tuesday.

"Only in recent years have campaigns thought about doing this, and then rarely followed through," he said.

In Williamson County, Texas, a swing county just north of Austin, election administrator Christopher Davis said that the few poll watchers there were mostly sent by a local conservative activist who promotes unfounded claims of voter fraud. When the county opened up its central count office this past weekend to process mailed ballots, only one poll watcher showed. The watcher, Davis said, was from the Trump campaign and behaved according to the rules.

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"Maybe we're just lucky in WilCo," Davis said.

Several Trump supporters in Arizona said they volunteered to be poll watchers, but there was no follow-up. "I actually signed up twice because I never heard from them. I never was contacted, and I signed up almost two months ago," said Lynne Berreman, who lives in Phoenix. "Hopefully it's because they already have enough people."

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A late October lawsuit by Nevada's Republican Party tacitly acknowledged that the GOP's poll watching operation there was ineffective. The party sued Clark County, home of Las Vegas, in an effort to stop the counting of mail-in ballots until "meaningful observation" was allowed. The suit alleged that poll watchers were not allowed to be close enough to the counting process to do their jobs. A state court judge denied the request for a temporary injunction hours after it was filed.

Despite the small number of official poll watchers, unauthorized Trump supporters at times have shown up and behaved aggressively at polling places and drop boxes, according to tips received by Electionland.

The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

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The paucity of Republican poll watchers doesn't necessarily reflect a lack of enthusiasm for the candidate. In fact, avid supporters may prefer more vocal or demonstrative ways of expressing their views than watching polls all day. Trump's cries for help in the prevention of fraud make the poll watcher's role seem far more dramatic and consequential than it actually is. More than 20 Trump campaign training videos for poll watchers, reviewed by ProPublica, make clear the mundane nature of the task, encouraging volunteers to be on time, to bring a water bottle, to not interact with voters and to be respectful "even to our Democratic friends!"

Poll watching "is like watching paint dry," said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, specializing in elections. "If you're waiting for the busloads of fraud to arise, and what you get is small American-flag-waving democracy, you begin to go out of your head. It's like sitting in a field waiting for the UFOs and the UFOs never show up. And then you're just sitting in a field, which is fine for a couple hours, but polls are open about 15 hours a day."

Analysts say that the president and his staff may not believe their own predictions of a poll-watching army, but that they may be raising the specter to deter Democratic voters from going to the polls. The campaigns also want people to sign up to be poll watchers, even if they don't actually follow through, because their contact information helps identify potential donors.

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Bob Bauer, the attorney for the campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden, said the Trump campaign is betting on scaring voters into staying home to avoid confrontation. But, he said, that tactic appears to have backfired, as young people and other likely Democratic voters have flocked to the polls during early voting.

Democrats have their own poll-watching strategy, according to campaign insiders. They encourage volunteers to watch not only voters but also Republican poll watchers, and to be on the lookout for any GOP effort to intimidate voters or challenge them without justification.

Poll watchers are common in American democracy and have been a fixture of precincts since the 1800s. In the vast majority of states, the parties or the campaigns are allowed to send trained watchers to each precinct. Poll watchers largely sit silently, taking notes on anything out of the ordinary to report to the party or campaign attorneys. Their job is not to intervene but to observe and serve as witnesses for court cases or challenges if they observe something illegal or inappropriate, said Ben Ginsberg, one of the most well-known Republican election attorneys. Most often, poll watchers report nothing.

This isn't the first Republican campaign with a lot of talk about poll watchers but little action. In 2016, Trump adviser Roger Stone mounted a last-ditch effort only days before Election Day while Trump was down in the polls and threatening not to accept the results of the election. Stone had pledged to recruit 3,000 hand-selected volunteers in a list of cities, but few showed up.

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By text, Stone said that his efforts in 2016 were not poll watching but exit polling to ensure the legitimacy of the count and were "entirely independent of the Trump campaign." Litigation lodged by Democratic groups, portraying the effort as a veiled attempt to intimidate voters, hurt his ability to recruit in large numbers, he said.

"Unfortunately defending against extensive litigation and our legal victories sapped our resources so that the number of exit polls conducted fell far below what we had hoped to achieve," he said. Federal courts ultimately ruled that the effort did not constitute voter suppression or intimidation.

Stone was convicted and sentenced to prison time in February for lying to Congress and witness tampering during the House investigation into Russian activity in the 2016 election. In July, the president commuted his sentence and he was released.

In 2008, the conservative group True the Vote, which promotes unfounded allegations of voter fraud, sent hundreds of volunteers to minority neighborhoods around Houston, where the organization is headquartered. In the 2010 midterms, it pledged to mobilize thousands of people to serve as poll watchers. Between 2010 and 2012, True the Vote chapters opened across the country and the organization began preparing a national recruitment effort.

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But what happened?

"Long, sad trombone sound," Levitt said. While a few people showed up, and some counties had a larger presence than others, the campaign largely fizzled. "It was nowhere near the all-caps nightmare that it was reportedly supposed to be." True the Vote did not respond to a request for comment.

In 1982, after the New Jersey GOP sent off-duty law enforcement officers to watch voting, the state's Republican Party and the Republican National Committee entered into a consent decree barring them from "ballot security" initiatives. North Carolina's Republican Party was added to the consent decree in 1990. All three parties were released from the consent decree in 2018, raising concerns that the intimidating behavior would start anew. But so far it hasn't.

Every state has different rules for poll watching, though some form of it is generally allowed. In general, parties or candidates register watchers with the county. Volunteers generally must pay their own way to the polling location, and they must be trained and present proof of that training at the polls, where their behavior is intensely restricted. They generally cannot be on their phone, speak to voters or engage in any way with the process, or they may be removed from the polling location.

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The result, poll workers say, is rampant boredom. "It was just a really long day," said Zachary Brown, who served as a vote challenger — the equivalent of a poll watcher in Michigan — in Pontiac in 2012 for the conservative group Protecting Michigan Taxpayers. Brown said he saw nothing out of the ordinary. The determination behind the campaign to fish out fraud when there was none was "disheartening," he said, and it led him to turn away from the conservative movement. He hasn't been a poll watcher since and considers himself an independent politically. "All I saw were people voting," he said.

The Trump campaign's poll-watcher efforts this year were more centralized than normal in Colorado, where state Election Day operations manager Joe Samudio took over the task from county party chairs of appointing poll watchers during early voting and on Election Day. Samudio seemed successful in recruiting volunteers but then was reassigned to Minnesota, leaving the program in limbo. Although Colorado sends mail-in ballots to all voters, it also has numerous locations for in-person voting. Poll watchers also can observe counting of ballots whether they're mailed in or cast in person. Samudio did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

"He had all these people and then suddenly he was sent to Minnesota and I didn't hear from anyone else for several days," said Peg Perl, the election director for Arapahoe County in Colorado. She said she did not recall seeing or hearing of any Republican poll watchers during the first week of early voting, while some Democratic poll watchers did show up.

Colorado GOP spokesman Joe Jackson said that the party is currently dispatching watchers in all major counties.

The Trump campaign's frustration over poll watching has boiled over in Nevada. In an early October poll watcher training in Las Vegas, Jesse Law, the Trump campaign's Election Day operations manager, complained to online and in-person trainees that Democratic poll watchers can "get away with anything" but Republicans are heavily watched.

Democrats were there not to ensure the integrity of the vote, as his volunteers would be, but to watch Republicans, Law said in a video obtained by ProPublica. "The problem with the Democrats being at these locations … is they are sent here to destroy your life," he said, saying that they would "make up that we are suppressing the vote."

"They are there to know everything that's on your phone, everything you're writing down, everything about you," he said, looking around the room. Law did not respond to an email asking for comment.

Law emphasized that trainees should not break the law and give Democrats ammunition to use against Trump (whom he called "the boss") in court. "If you are over here going 'that person isn't legal' and that person is completely legal, that's a black eye for us. Don't do that," he said. "If you are seeing a problem, document it, talk to an attorney about it, and let's get to the bottom of it — no spectacles please!"


Jessica Huseman

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