Constraints gone, GOP ramps up effort to monitor voting

FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2016, file photo, poll watcher Jane Grimes Meneely, right, watches as voters sign in at the Martha O'Bryan Center community building in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2016, file photo, poll watcher Jane Grimes Meneely, right, watches as voters sign in at the Martha O'Bryan Center community building in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File) (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – For years, the state of Pennsylvania has had strict rules about who can stand in polling stations and challenge the eligibility of voters. The restrictions are meant to limit the use of “poll monitors” long sent by both parties to look out for voting mishaps but at times used to intimidate voters.

In June, the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign sued to ease those rules, saying they imposed arbitrary limits on the party's ability to keep tabs on the voting process no matter where it occurs.

The Pennsylvania lawsuit over an obscure slice of election law is just one piece of the party’s sweeping plan to expand poll monitoring this election year. Thanks to a federal court ruling that freed the party from restrictions, the GOP is mounting a broad effort to keep a close watch on who casts ballots.

The GOP is recruiting 50,000 monitors, typically party activists and specially appointed volunteers, across 15 battleground states. Meanwhile, the party has filed, or intervened in, lawsuits challenging election rules across the country, including cases in battleground states like Nevada, Wisconsin and Florida over laws related to absentee ballots and voting by mail.

Republicans say they are focused on preventing the fraud they have long maintained, without evidence, is rampant in U.S. elections. Democrats and voting rights groups fear the planned influx of poll watchers under the imprimatur of the RNC is a veiled effort to suppress Democratic turnout, particularly in minority communities.

The issue is especially contentious for two parties already clashing over how to protect the right to vote during a pandemic. As election officials prepare for an unprecedented surge of mailed ballots, both parties are gearing up for the possibility of protracted legal battles over how those votes are tallied, giving new weight to the question of who can monitor the count.

“By and large, these kinds of ballot security operations, especially in a heated partisan and polarizing environment and with the emotions surrounding elections — they risk crossing lines, causing disruptions,” said Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Republicans say the monitors they’re recruiting will receive training to ensure they follow state laws. The real reason Democrats are objecting is because Republicans know that “the playing field has been leveled,” said RNC spokesperson Mandi Merritt.