Stymied in their efforts to pass a bill allowing more freedom to Election Day poll watchers, Pennsylvania Republicans have filed a lawsuit, arguing that their activists have First and 14th Amendment rights to watch polls anywhere.
“Republicans are not a majority of registered voters in any ward in Philadelphia County,” the Republicans said in the lawsuit. “As a result of the Commonwealth's arbitrary restriction on poll watchers, candidates, political parties and political bodies are unjustifiably burdened in their attempts to locate available, qualified registered electors who can serve as poll watchers.”
The lawsuit, which comes as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump makes several campaign stops in the battle for the commonwealth, claims that Democrats are also disadvantaged by current laws that restrict volunteer poll watchers to the counties they live in. But Democrats, who have won every presidential election in the state since 1992, have not raised serious doubts about their Election Day operations in deep red counties.
The loudest complaints about the poll-watcher system have come from Republicans, who have said for years that potential voter fraud in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's largest city, was making the state unwinnable.
“You want me to tell you the election in Philadelphia and Chicago is going to be fair?” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Trump surrogate who has suggested that Democrats will fraudulently get voters to drive around the city and cast multiple ballots, after this week's presidential debate. “I would have to be a moron to say that.”
Egged on by Trump, Pennsylvania Republicans have encouraged members to become poll watchers, allowing them to challenge the credentials of any voters in their jurisdiction. In an interview two months ago, when Trump first floated the idea that vote-rigging in Philadelphia would steal Pennsylvania away from him, state GOP chairman Rob Gleason said that Republicans were credentialing more poll watchers in the city than ever before.
But Republicans, badly outnumbered in the Philadelphia, are seeking a way to bring poll watchers in from the suburbs. In the lawsuit, they point to the fact that every congressional district spills into multiple counties to argue that the home-county rule “arbitrarily and unreasonably distinguishes between voters within the same electoral district by allowing some, but not others, to serve as poll watchers.”
Pennsylvania Democrats responded to the lawsuit this morning, with Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Marcel L. Groen calling it a "publicity stunt" that would be "found unconstitutional" in short order.
“This is just another way for the Republicans to avoid talking about issues," said Groen. "Pennsylvanians must know that their sacred right to vote will be defended; more people will vote in this election than any in our history, and we expect it to be easier than ever for Pennsylvanians to cast their ballots on November 8. For the Pennsylvania Republicans to take their nominee's conspiracy theories and thinly veiled racism to heart by trying to change the law two weeks from Election Day shows just how unfit they are to lead.”
Rick Hasen, a University of California at Irvine law professor who watches election rules, said that the lawsuit looked like “weak tea.” In a blog post, he explained that the lawsuit — which presents the problem as one of equal protection, not of immediate fraud — comes too late and doesn't suggest a compelling interest. (That Republicans have introduced a bill on the poll watcher issue is cited, in the lawsuit, as a proof that a need is there.)
“I cannot see how this severely burdens voters’ rights,” Hasen wrote, “and nothing in the complaint demonstrates that it does. I don’t think the federal arguments have much of a chance of going anywhere.”
If it doesn't, Republicans who don't live in Philadelphia will not be able to challenge voters at the city's 1,000-plus precincts. But in 2008, after a highly publicized backlash to the community organizing group ACORN filing bogus voter registrations, conservative activists had little problem traveling around polling places to publicize potential issues. Mike Roman, who is helping the Trump campaign build an election-watching program, tweeted a reminder this week of the 2008 poll watchers' biggest coup — a video of two New Black Panther Party activists skulking outside a heavily Democratic precinct. That video ran around the clock on Fox News and led to a years-long investigation and several legal actions.