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Alarm grows over Trump team's efforts to monitor polls

Concern over voter intimidation is growing among Democrats and some observers as the Trump campaign calls for poll watchers to be dispatched across the country.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE's reelection campaign argues that poll watchers are essential in combating voter fraud, despite a number of studies failing to find widespread evidence of voter fraud at polling sites or by mail.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida Supreme Court reinstates ban on curbside voting in Alabama MORE over the weekend suggested that voter intimidation could result in him losing the election.

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“The only way we lose this is by the chicanery going on with regard to polling places,” Biden said in Erie, Pa., on Saturday.

Biden later clarified that he would accept the results of the election after his comments drew comparisons to Trump’s attempts to question the integrity of the election.

The president’s rhetoric regarding voting sites in particular has raised concerns among political opponents and voting rights activists. In August, Trump told Fox News’s Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityBiden: Johnson should be 'ashamed' for suggesting family profited from their name Trafalgar chief pollster predicts Trump victory: Polls 'predominantly missing the hidden vote' Trump, Biden dial up efforts to boost early voter turnout in Florida MORE that he would like to dispatch law enforcement officials to the polls, leading to worries that the comments could drive away voters. And Trump called on supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully” during last month’s debate with Biden.

“I think it’s important for folks to be responsible about their rhetoric they’re using when they’re speaking about poll watching and election observation,” said David Levine, the Elections Integrity Fellow at the bipartisan Alliance for Securing Democracy and a former state and local election official.

“Using loaded rhetoric or giving off the implication to voters and other reasonable stakeholders [that] you intend to do more than simply observe the election is where we begin to see cause for concern.”

The concerns come as both parties unveil their plans to ensure fairness at the polls with Election Day approaching and early voting getting underway. The Biden campaign has beefed up its legal campaign in recent weeks, while Trump’s team is moving to deploy thousands of poll watchers across the country.

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Poll watchers are meant to be observers at polling locations in order to guarantee fairness in the electoral process, while poll workers interact and work with voters.

A number of states require a limited number of watchers to be present at the polls.

“Poll watchers do not engage in campaign rallies,” said David Becker, the executive director and founder of the bipartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research. “They’re not engaging in campaign activity or electioneering, which is almost always restricted across the states in terms of how close you can do that at a polling place.”

“If people are there to simply observe, if people have gone through appropriate procedures to get certified, registered, and training in advance, and if they’re there to assist voters and help them navigate the voting process appropriately, there won’t be a problem,” he continued.

The Biden campaign has touted its arsenal of lawyers, led by figures like former Obama White House counsel Bob Bauer and former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderAlarm grows over Trump team's efforts to monitor polls The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden on Trump: 'He'll leave' l GOP laywers brush off Trump's election remarks l Obama's endorsements Obama endorses Warnock in crowded Georgia Senate race MORE. Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley DillonJen O'Malley DillonTrump wishes Harris 'the best' after aide tests positive for COVID-19 Biden camp urges supporters to 'campaign like we're trailing' Biden campaign manager: Race is 'far closer' than experts say MORE dubbed it the “largest voter protection effort that has ever been conducted on a presidential campaign” in August.

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is calling its effort “Trump’s Army,” with the goal of recruiting 50,000 volunteers. 

The president’s campaign released audio last week from its own poll watcher training.

“Essentially, the key is to behave yourself and not act like a fool,” said a narrator in one video. “Through your presence at the polls, you will be deterring mismanagement and deliberate attacks that could sway the overall results of the election.”

“Please be courteous to the county staff, and other poll watchers. And, yes, even Democrats, they are our friends,” the narrator added.

Trump's reelection campaign defended the push for more poll watchers in a statement to The Hill.

"Since when is fairness a bad thing? While President Trump has fought for a fair, transparent election since day one, Democrats have proven their lack of trustworthiness time and again this election cycle with their constant attempts to rig election rules, mere weeks before Election Day, to stack the deck for their lackluster candidate," said the campaign's national deputy press secretary, Thea McDonald.

"Poll watchers are critical to ensuring the fairness of any election, and President Trump’s volunteer poll watchers will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally, all valid ballots are counted, and all Democrat rule breaking is called out. And if fouls are called, the Trump Campaign will go to court to enforce the laws, as rightfully written by state legislatures, to protect every voter’s right to vote. President Trump and his team will be ready to make sure polls are run correctly, securely, and transparently as we work to deliver the free and fair election Americans deserve.”

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The Trump campaign was dealt a blow last week when a Philadelphia judge rejected its effort to send poll watchers to the city’s voting sites. The ruling came after unauthorized poll watchers from the Trump campaign were kicked out of satellite election offices, where election officials were working to register voters and process mail-in ballots. 

“If we see anyone, whether they’re associated with a campaign or not, attempting to violate federal or state law with regard to qualified poll watchers or seeking to create an environment that might be intimidating to some voters, I have every confidence that election officials and law enforcement will enforce order around polling places and ensure that voters’ rights will be upheld,” said Becker, of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. 

Trump slammed the move to kick out poll watchers during the debate.

“As you know today, there was a big problem in Philadelphia. They went in to watch, they’re called poll watchers. They’re very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out, they weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things,” the president said.

Judge Gary Glazer ruled that the satellite offices “do not constitute polling places where watchers have a right to be present under the Election Code."

"The very detailed Election Code contains no provision that expressly grants the [Trump] Campaign and its representatives a right to serve as watchers at 'satellite offices' of the Board of Elections," Glazer ruled.

Experts are also warning that efforts resulting in voter intimidation could play directly into the hands of foreign adversaries looking to sow discord in the presidential election four years after Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

“The concern about rhetoric, rhetoric that calls for lots of people to show up at the polls without authorization, that kind of rhetoric could create the kinds of actions that have the ability of basically really getting folks to question the integrity of the election process,” said the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Levine.