As he continued to sow distrust in the electoral process at a Sept. 8 rally in Winston-Salem, Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to take on alleged voter fraud themselves.
“Watch it,” he said. “Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do.”
Trump previously stated he had plans to send law enforcement officials to monitor the polls, which is prohibited by federal and state law. Poll watchers, on the other hand, are legal, so long as they don’t interfere with the voting process. But officials say their job isn’t quite as action-packed as the president would make it seem.
The role of poll watchers
Poll watchers have long been deployed by political parties to observe election proceedings and ensure each party gets a fair shot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They are prohibited from directly communicating with voters, but they can watch for potential offenses and track turnout to help estimate how a party’s candidate is doing.
If they witness a potential instance of voter fraud, they can bring it to the attention of precinct officials or contact the county board of elections, “as long as it’s done in a nonobstructive manner,” according to Derek Bowens, Durham County’s director of elections. But such disputes are rare, he said.
“Election Day challenges are pretty nonexistent here,” Bowens said. “When we do get them, a lot of times it’s a misunderstanding of process on the observer’s part.”
Not just anyone can be a poll watcher. In North Carolina, the county chair of each political party can nominate two poll watchers per polling place. The nominees have to be approved by the county board of elections. Poll watchers must be registered voters of the county, cannot be candidates on the ballot, and must possess “good moral character,” according to state statute.
“It’s probably more subjective than it could be,” Bowens said. “But the threshold is pretty high for the board to reject someone. I’ve never seen that happen.”
Each county party may also nominate up to 10 at-large observers that can monitor any precinct, and state parties can nominate up to 100, but a maximum of three poll watchers from each party may observe a precinct at a time.
While the president can’t mobilize law enforcement to oversee the polls, North Carolina statute does not prohibit law enforcement officials from independently serving as poll watchers. However, they must follow the same rules as all other poll watchers and cannot communicate with or intimidate voters.
The prevalence of voter fraud
What about the “thieving, stealing, and robbing” Trump mentioned? “I have no clue what he’s talking about,” Bowens said.
Voter fraud is rare, but Republicans have latched onto a few recent cases. On Sept. 8, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger revealed investigations into 1,000 cases of double voting in the state’s June primary election and August runoff. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also announced on Sept. 3 that 19 foreign nationals would face charges for illegally voting in the 2016 federal election in North Carolina.
However, neither case of voter fraud altered the outcome of any race, state officials from Georgia and North Carolina confirmed. Trump has similarly claimed fraudulent ballots caused him to lose the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, despite losing by almost 3 million votes. Now, he’s urging supporters to try out the same fraudulent techniques he denounces.
At a Sept. 2 briefing with reporters in Wilmington, Trump encouraged Republicans planning to vote by mail to visit their local polling place and attempt to vote again in person.
“Let them send it in and let them go vote, and if their system’s as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote,” he said. “If it isn’t tabulated, they’ll be able to vote.”
Intentionally voting more than once is a felony in North Carolina. Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, issued a statement the next day reminding voters of the state’s protections against double voting. The board also launched an online service called BallotTrax last Friday to allow voters to track the status of their absentee ballots.
“If someone has voted, and we’ve logged their vote at the board of elections, when they present to vote in person, they won’t be able to cast their ballot,” Bowens said.
Damon Circosta, chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said voter fraud is “so exceedingly rare that it’s almost laughable.”
“Any time you get a conspiracy big enough that it could impact the outcome of an election, too many people know that you’re trying to do something fraudulent,” he said. He referenced one such case in the 2018 election for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, where a Republican operative was accused of tampering with absentee ballots. That operative was indicted last year.
Some worry that Trump’s fear-mongering tactics will embolden his supporters to intimidate voters. But Circosta said such attempts at voter suppression won’t be tolerated — they’ll be met with “the full weight of the law,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s anything more sad than intimidating your fellow citizens out of the franchise,” he said. “We should pause and think about what we’re trying to do with democracy, and it’s certainly not silence other voices.”