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Where Are Donald Trump’s Poll Watchers?

GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump has transfixed and alarmed observers by calling for supporters to sign up to watch for vote "rigging." But as The New York Times reports this morning there's no sign that Trump supporters have signed up to do so in any significant numbers.

"Like much else about his campaign, his call to 'get everybody to go out and watch' the polls seems to be a Potemkin effort, with little or no organization behind it," writes reporter Trip Gabriel. Election officials in battleground states tell the Times that sign ups to be certified poll watchers are essentially equal those in 2012. True the Vote, a right-leaning group dedicated to policing voter fraud, reports that sign-ups for its online training course are also the same as 2012 -- about 200 people a day.

It's unclear if these numbers will remain the same. Only yesterday, Trump hired GOP operative and Breitbart contributor Mike Roman as his head of "election protection."

Roman is supposed to be in charge of turning volunteers who signed up through the Trump campaign's website into official poll watchers. But the election is in three weeks, and time is running out. Rules for poll watchers -- who can be one, where they must be registered, how many are allowed per polling location, when they have to register with the state, etc. -- vary dramatically by state and even by county. It would be an extensive undertaking to go about registering hundreds (much less thousands) of poll watchers under varying regulations in only three weeks.

"If in fact you are talking about an orchestrated official observation effort, I would say the time of it is running out," Tammy Patrick, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and an Electionland advisor, told me. If Trump has no interest in being part of the official poll watching system, he could organize this effort up to and even on Election Day. But most states don't let folks just roll up to a polling site and interrogate whomever they like or stand watch in a way that might intimidate voters.

"It’s going to be, I think, probably eye opening to individuals showing up thinking they can just show up, walk in and watch," she said. “The rule of law will override their efforts if they choose not to comply.”

Right now it's pretty unclear what Trump's plan is. Todd Abrajano, spokesman for Trump’s Missouri campaign, told the Kansas City Star that they'd be following official rules: The names they collect will be handed over to the state Republican party, which will train volunteers and direct them to local election officials to be stationed at polling places.

“We’re not trying to just send people in to hang out in polling places,” Abrajano told the Star. “These will be official and trained election observers.”

I called the St. Louis Board of Elections Commissioners, who told me they have received no names for poll watchers from either party yet, but that they do not anticipate having any more than last year. He told me that in 2012, there was a Republican and a Democratic poll watcher at every single precinct. Because that is the maximum allowed by law, there can't be any more than that this year.

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Portrait of Jessica Huseman

Jessica Huseman

Jessica Huseman covers voting rights and election administration for ProPublica.

About Electionland

ProPublica’s Electionland project covers problems that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots during the 2020 elections. Our coalition of newsrooms around the country are investigating issues related to voter registration, pandemic-related changes to voting, the shift to vote-by-mail, cybersecurity, voter education, misinformation, and more.

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