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Poll Watchers from Far-Away Counties? Pennsylvania Voters Have Nothing to Worry About

A lawsuit was filed to allow poll watchers to go to polling places outside their home country and watch elections. The judge will likely dismiss it immediately. So should voters.

  • Adam Gitlin
October 22, 2016

Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Republican party filed a lawsuit to allow poll watchers to go to polling places outside their home county to watch elections. The lawsuit looks like little more than an attempt to drum up attention and stoke fears of voter intimidation, and the judge will probably dismiss it immediately. So should voters.

In Pennsylvania, home of the claims by politicians that this election, people should go to “other areas” to “watch” voters, poll watchers can only watch in their home counties. That makes sense: on Election Day, a poll watcher does not have the power to challenge whether a given voter is eligible to vote. A poll watcher does have the power to challenge whether a voter is who they say they are, or whether the voter lives where they say they live. Making that challenge on a good faith basis essentially requires personally knowing the voter. So limiting poll watchers to local residents is intuitive—indeed, as the lawsuit notes, until recently Pennsylvania required that poll watchers only watch at a single polling place. Allowing poll watchers to flood in from every county would undercut the basis for allowing Election Day challenges in the first place, and invites harassment and discrimination.

The law restricting where poll watchers can come from is one of many common-sense restrictions on who can do what at polling places. Courts have recognized the important role these laws play in making voters feel safe. Contrary to what the lawsuit suggests, polling places are not free speech zones. That’s why states can and do prohibit campaigning close to polling places, even imposing buffer zones, and often have laws totally prohibiting poll watchers from speaking to voters inside polling places.

The litigants knew this was the law well before this eleventh-hour salvo. They even tried — unsuccessfully — to pass a bill allowing poll watchers to observe elections in any county. That hasn’t worked. The only functions of a lawsuit this late are — perhaps because of lackluster signups for poll watchers from the targeted geographic locations — an attention-seeking hail-Mary pass, or, worse, to add to the ongoing false rhetoric on voter fraud, creating fears of voter intimidation.

But voters have nothing to worry about. The suit, like other voter-intimidation efforts, will not succeed. We’ve seen these shenanigans before, and so have election officials. They are prepared to handle it. Last week, for example, the Pennsylvania Department of State issued detailed guidance on prohibited voter intimidation and appropriate polling place conduct. The nonpartisan Election Protection coalition is also readying its hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE, to rapidly respond to any issues that come up at the polls.

These last-minute tricks aren’t going to work. Our elections are secure, and voters shouldn’t be deterred. Voters in Pennsylvania should instead join millions of others and confidently exercise their rights.