Efforts by Pennsylvania Republicans to send poll watchers to minority neighborhoods to guard against “voter fraud” were dealt a serious blow Thursday, when a federal judge rejected a lawsuit seeking permission to send poll watchers anywhere in the state.
Under Pennsylvania law, poll watchers may only observe voting in the county where they are registered to vote. This means that a person from, say, Punxsutawney, in western Pennsylvania, is not allowed to serve as a poll watcher in Philadelphia, 300 miles to the east.
Republicans challenged the law in court last month, arguing that the state’s limitations on poll watching interfered with people’s First Amendment rights to participate in the political process. They also argued that “when unqualified electors are permitted to vote within a district, the legitimate votes of all qualified electors in that district are diluted, and their fundamental right to vote is therefore violated.”
In his 28-page opinion Thursday, Judge Gerald Pappert rejected each of these arguments. Poll watching, he wrote, is not protected speech under the Constitution, and “has no distinct First Amendment protection.” He also rejected the idea that without poll watchers, unqualified voters could skew the results of an election.
On the contrary, Pappert wrote, concerns about voter fraud are “more effectively addressed … by election overseers than poll watchers, to take just one example. The overseers have greater authority to question voters, and may be within the closed space in which ballots are counted and machines are canvassed, while poll watchers can do neither of those things.”
The judge also scolded the Pennsylvania GOP for waiting until late October to challenge the state law. “Any influx of potential poll watchers at this time would impact the workflow and other duties” of official election workers, Pappert wrote.
The rush by Republicans to send poll watchers to heavily Democratic and minority polling places was prompted in large part by the party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, who has singled out Philadelphia during rallies as a place where his supporters need to be on the lookout for “shenanigans.”
“I hear these horror shows, and we have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us and is not taken away from us,” Trump said last month at a rally in northeast Pennsylvania. “Everybody knows what I’m talking about,” he added, a line widely interpreted as coded language for Trump’s belief that minority voters in urban precincts would be the ones “stealing” the election.
Outside of the official Trump campaign, Trump loyalists are also busy organizing their own poll watching efforts nationwide, under the guise of conducting phony “exit polls” and “citizen journalist” interviews. Stop the Steal, a group led by longtime Trump advisor and political trickster Roger Stone, even created fake I.D. badges for its volunteers to wear at the polls, contributing to the potential for confusion among voters as to whether the volunteers were official election workers.
Efforts like these are the subject of lawsuits in four states, accusing the Trump campaign, Stone, Stop the Steal and state Republican parties of engaging in illegal voter intimidation tactics. The suits were brought by state Democratic parties in Ohio, Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania, and judges in these states are moving quickly to resolve them before Election Day.
Read the ruling in full, below:
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