Trump promotes disinformation on poll watchers during first presidential debate

    Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon
    Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon took to Twitter after Tuesday's presidential debate to explain Minnesota's rules on poll watchers. Simon is shown here speaking with city clerk Melissa Kennedy during a public accuracy test of Election Day voting machines in 2018. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

    During the first presidential debate Tuesday night, President Donald Trump claimed that poll watchers — people who monitor polling places and potentially challenge votes — were kicked out of Philadelphia polling places. This is not true.

    “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” Trump said during the debate. “In Philadelphia, they went in to watch, they’re called poll watchers — a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? [Be]cause bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.”

    As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Wednesday, satellite polling stations have opened in Philadelphia, where voters can submit only mail-in ballots — meaning there’s no need for poll watchers and campaigns aren’t entitled to place them there. The Trump campaign also doesn’t have official poll watchers approved to work in Philadelphia yet. Election officials are also required to follow safety protocols — including limiting the number of people indoors — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Responsibilities and qualifications for poll watchers vary state-by-state.

    Secretary of State Steve Simon took to Twitter Wednesday morning to clarify Minnesota’s laws regarding poll watchers.

    Minnesota allows poll “challengers” but they must be appointed by written certificate and are only allowed to challenge a person’s vote “if and only if they have personal knowledge of that voter’s ineligibility.” A vote can’t be challenged based on suspicions alone.

    Per Minnesota state law, only one of these poll challengers per major political party is allowed at a given precinct.

    And there are strict rules regulating their behavior. They can’t attempt to intimidate voters, take photos in a polling location, make lists or go within six feet of a ballot counter. They’re not even allowed to speak directly to voters; if they want to challenge a vote, they must provide a written challenge to the precinct’s election judge. 

    Only voters, election officials or exit pollers can stand within 100 feet of a polling place, per Minnesota law.

    So, those who are not appointed as official poll challengers, but who still want to watch,  must stay at least 100 feet outside of the polling station, according to the Star Tribune. That 100 foot rule, like in many other states, applies to electioneers as well. 

    Republicans have been amping up efforts to recruit some 50,000 poll watchers nationally to fight unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. Such recruitment efforts are taking place in-state too, the Duluth News Tribune reported recently.

    A federal consent decree that limited the Republican Party’s poll watcher activity expired in 2017, making this the first general election in 40 years to see such a mass national poll-watching plan by the GOP.

    Though having designated poll-challengers is a common practice, DFL-affiliates have voiced opposition to the GOP’s recruitment tactics, citing a history of voter intimidation practices.

    Despite recent allegations of illegal voting from a right-wing media outlet, voter fraud is extremely rare.

    Of the nearly 3 million Minnesotans who voted in the 2016 presidential election, 11 people were convicted of being ineligible to vote.

    Dylan Miettinen
    Dylan Miettinen is a Reformer intern. A fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota, he was born and raised in Omaha, Neb. He currently serves as the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. He's also worked for CNN, the Minnesota Media and Publishing Association and the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast.