Alex Isenstadt and Natasha Korecki
Poll watchers monitor everything from voting machines to the processing of ballots to checking voter identification. They are not permitted to interact directly with voters but, depending on local regulations, they can relay problems to local election officials or campaign higher-ups.
The Trump deployment is the culmination of months of detailed planning, aggressive volunteer recruitment, and reconnaissance trips to key states. President Donald Trump has been personally briefed on the program, which is overseen by nearly two dozen full time staffers.
It underscores how — to the alarm of voting rights advocates and Democrats — Trump and his reelection effort have turned the idea of voter fraud and irregularities into a centerpiece of the campaign. The prospect of a prolonged vote-counting fight that will extend far beyond Nov. 3 appears very real.
While poll watchers have long been used by both parties, the crush of monitors has led to concerns about endless challenges to voter eligibility that would inject further chaos into the contest — and potentially set off a counteroffensive by Democrats.
Veteran Republican election attorney Ben Ginsberg warned in a Washington Post op-ed Monday, “Should Trump seek to delegitimatize the presidential election … His most obvious tactic would be having the RNC instruct its poll watchers to abandon their traditional role and, instead, lodge mass challenges both as voters cast their ballots and then as mail ballots are tabulated.”
Trump advisers strenuously deny their goal is anything other than ensuring that polling places are running smoothly and following the law. The campaign said poll watchers have been trained to focus on mundane matters like making sure that lines aren’t too long, machines are working properly, and that voting locations are stocked with enough ballots.
Clark, Trump’s 2020 deputy campaign manager, pushed back on the idea that observers would disrupt the election; to the contrary, he argued that they would instill confidence in the outcome.
“The way elections are run well is when you have stable rules that everyone knows and when there’s tons of transparency in the system,” he said. “The president wants to make sure that everyone who is old enough to vote and eligible to vote have the opportunity to vote and have their vote counted once. Period. That’s all we’re trying to do.”
As Trump and his campaign activate their poll-watching corps, Democrats are mobilizing their own counterforce.
“Everybody’s so worried about Trump stealing this election, I can’t even tell you,” said Shanti Fry, a Massachusetts-based fundraiser who also has done voter protection work in previous presidential elections.
The Trump effort launched in late 2018, when Clark and Stepien created a budget and began designing a program. Campaign officials say they have spent in the mid-to-high seven figures on the project.
The Trump team received a boost earlier that year when a judge lifted a consent decree that had been imposed on the RNC in 1982 after it was accused of suppressing minority voters. The order had barred the committee from challenging voters’ eligibility at election sites, severely hampering its ability to engage in poll watching.
With the decree lifted, the Trump campaign has been working with the RNC to recruit a national network of volunteer observers. While the 2016 Trump campaign developed a ballot security hotline and war room toward the end of the race, the reelection effort was able to begin setting up its program nearly two years in advance.
Roman, a veteran of the Koch political network who has spent decades working on Election Day operations, is a central figure in the effort. Early this year he traveled to every major battleground state to scope out the terrain.
Roman, whose personal website is devoted to voter fraud, has also been working with local candidates and parties to recruit volunteers.
But the biggest recruitment tool has been the president and his Twitter account. At last week’s debate, he called on “my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully.”
“Every time he throws that out there, it’s a sure bet that thousands will sign up,” Roman said.
When North Carolina processed early ballots and absentee ballots last month, Trump volunteers were present in 92 of the state’s 100 counties. They watched as election officials opened ballot envelopes, checked the authenticity of voter signatures, and crossed off names in poll books.
The aggressive posture was also on display in Philadelphia last week, when Trump volunteers unsuccessfully tried to get access to a Board of Elections satellite office. City officials said observers are only allowed at polling sites and not at satellite offices, which provide services like registration but where voting doesn’t take place.
Still, Trump lashed out at the city for the decision, saying in the debate that volunteers “weren’t allowed to watch. … Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.”
Republicans have since sued the city to gain access to the locations.
For months, Biden’s campaign has been assembling its own program that includes a poll-watching operation and a heavy stable of attorneys. Advisers say it numbers thousands of people, though they wouldn’t be more specific.
In one recent recruitment effort, more than 400 Boston-based attorneys and supporters convened a conference call to discuss fanning out to Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Maine. They agreed to monitor polling sites, staff voter assistance hotlines or be ready to go to court at a moment’s notice.
Volunteers have also been trained on how to intervene if Republicans appear to be engaging in intimidation tactics.
At the same time, Biden’s campaign is trying to tamp down fears within the party about Republican interference.
“Overheated reports about chaos at the polls on Election Day threaten to further Trump’s clear goal of discouraging Americans from voting,” said Michael Gwin, a Biden campaign spokesperson. “We’re confident that elections will be held this year free from intimidation or interference, and we’ve put in place the largest voter protection program in history to ensure that’s the case.”
After Trump’s call-out at the debate last week, several dozen high-dollar Democratic donors and attorneys convened a conference call to discuss expanding recruiting efforts and prepare for potential chaos in the days following the election, according to a person on the call who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Trump aides are slotting volunteers into tens of thousands of shifts at voting locations across the country. The deployment plans are tied to a ranking system for which areas they think are most susceptible to irregularities that could harm the president.
The campaign has been training volunteers on poll watching rules. While they are not allowed to interact with voters, poll watchers in some states are able to communicate directly with election officials.
With the consent decree out of the way, Trump aides contend they can compete with Democrats on poll watching in a way they could not four years ago.
“I think we were operating with one hand tied behind our back for a very long time,” Clark said, “and I think we’re on a level playing field now.”