Information Articles, Polling Place Information

Election office directors talk poll watchers, voting rules

By Mike Tony mtony@heraldstandard.com

Published Mon Nov 07, 2016 2:00 AM EST

The heated rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election has in recent months escalated on a number of fronts, one of them being the legitimacy of the democratic process.

Republican nominee Donald Trump has cast doubt over the integrity of that process in rallies since August, telling audiences that they should watch the polls on Election Day for signs of attempted voter fraud.

But in southwestern Pennsylvania, a pivotal battleground for both Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, directors of election offices said they were not aware of any prior voter fraud happening in their respective counties and predicted that the atmosphere at local polls would remain untroubled Tuesday, as in past elections.

Directors of election offices in Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties said voter fraud and voter suppression – discouraging or preventing people from exercising their legal right to vote – were nonexistent locally in recent elections.

Washington County Elections Office Assistant Director Wes Parry noted that per state statute, each candidate may appoint two watchers for each election district where that candidate is on the ballot. Each political party may also appoint three watchers at any general, municipal or special election for each election district where a candidate of such party is on the ballot, per state statute.

“They’re supposed to be part of the décor of the room,” Parry said of poll watchers, emphasizing the low profile they must keep within a polling place. “Even if there is an issue, they’re still not allowed to engage the voter.”

But in the event of a challenge, according to state law, the burden of proof would be on the challenged voter to produce proof of identity and residency. If the judge of elections “cannot determine in good faith the residency or identity of the voter,” the voter is then allowed to find a witness who lives in the same precinct to sign an affidavit vouching for the voter’s identity and residence, or vote on a provisional ballot.

Parry said his office discourages the use of provisional ballots since the office is only allotted so many.

“I’d hate to burn through them all by 11 a.m.,” Parry said.

Only one poll watcher per party and one per candidate may be inside a polling place at any given time, and those watchers are permitted to inspect the poll book and numbered lists of voters when voters are not present.

Parry and other local election office directors said there is no deadline for applying to be a poll watcher, but per state law, those watchers must be identified in advance and assigned to specific precincts.

Greene County Office of Elections Director Tina Kiger said she hands out required watching certificates set aside for candidates a week before an election.

A federal judge on Thursday denied the Pennsylvania Republican Party’s requested injunction to allow poll watchers from anywhere in the state monitor precincts on Election Day, according to the Associated Press.

“That would have been a headache,” said Larry Blosser of the requested injunction.

“I don’t think it would be beneficial,” Kiger said. “Watching people in your county, you’d have a better chance of knowing who they are.”

The directors also said that it was rare that disruptions inside polling places required law enforcement to intervene, and Beth Lechman, director of Westmoreland County’s elections office, added that complaints from voters were more commonly in response to overly aggressive electioneers with campaign literature outside of polling places.

“They would contact our office first,” Kiger advised if voters experience intimidation at or outside of their polling place. “We don’t usually have too many problems.”

Instead, each of the four county election offices are touting the importance of voter patience above all else, with turnout expected to be high in a presidential election year.

“We ask for a lot of patience,” Parry said.

“Poll workers are by and large volunteers, and don’t get paid much.

“Have a little bit of good will toward your fellow man.”

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