The morning after President Donald Trump called for his supporters to “carefully watch” voting sites, his presidential campaign requested that Philadelphia immediately allow them to appoint poll watchers at early-voting centers.
Early voting in Philadelphia began on Tuesday. The city opened six early-voting sites at new satellite election offices and another at City Hall where voters can register, request, fill out, and submit mail-in ballots. Unlike early-voting centers, traditional polling locations are only open on Election Day, and people can vote in person as opposed to delivering their mail ballots.
The tactic of raising doubts about the integrity of the mail-in voting process is an effort to dissuade Democrats from using it, said Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. Absentee ballots, available to every Pennsylvania voter, can either be dropped off in person at election locations or set through the mail. But if a voter who requested an absentee ballot — more than 2 million have already done so, the overwhelming majority Democrats — decides instead they want to vote in person on Election Day, he warned, they’ll be turned away if they don’t bring their ballot — and the envelope it came in — with them to the polls. “That’s what they want,” he told The Intercept. “Let’s say half a million people out of 2 million say, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to vote by mail anymore.’ Can you imagine that?” The simplest thing, he said, is to just follow the instructions on the ballot and vote by mail.
On Wednesday, at the weekly Philadelphia City Commissioners meeting, which is open for public comment, the Trump campaign’s Pennsylvania state director for Election Day operations, James Fitzpatrick, requested that the board allow the campaign to immediately appoint poll watchers at early-voting centers.
“I am a qualified Philadelphia elector, and I represent Donald J. Trump for president,” Fitzpatrick said. “Your office opened satellite offices around Philadelphia yesterday and has plans to open more,” he said. “Because voting is occurring at these satellite offices, the Trump campaign requests that we immediately be able to appoint poll watchers to observe the voting at these satellite offices. In the alternative, if these are satellite offices of the Board of Elections, we request the right to have our representatives observe the process from a public space within these satellite election officers. Voters deserve transparency and accountability.”
Officials do not respond directly to public comments at such meetings. Asked if the commissioners would allow the Trump campaign to appoint poll watchers, City Commissioner Lisa Deeley told reporters, “They are not polling locations. Poll watchers are only appointed at polling locations. … It is a temporary election office where services are made available to citizens who would like to register to vote or request their mail-in ballot, and they vote their mail ballot there, or they can take it home and vote on it at their dining-room table,” she said.
During the first presidential debate on Tuesday night, Trump made numerous false claims about mail-in voting fraud and said, “I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully.” He also referred to poll watchers in Philadelphia, claiming that watchers were barred from observing early voting, failing to note that the satellite election offices are not actual polling locations. “As you know today there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went into watch — they’re called poll watchers. A very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? ’Cause bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things.” Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted, “Wow. Won’t let Poll Watchers & Security into Philadelphia Voting Places. There is only one reason why. Corruption!!! Must have a fair Election.”
One woman at an early-voting center in the city’s Overbrook neighborhood told a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter on Tuesday that she was hired by the Trump campaign to observe voting and was not allowed inside. That’s because there are no polling locations currently open, and because the Trump campaign doesn’t have any poll watchers approved to work in the city, as the Inquirer reported. Also on Tuesday, a deputy sheriff removed Fitzpatrick from the satellite election office at City Hall, “where he was recording video on his cellphone, according to election and sheriff aides,” Politico reported. The Trump campaign has threatened legal action against Philadelphia County for denying admission to poll watchers at the satellite election sites.
Tuesday’s debate was not the first time that Trump encouraged his supporters to go to polling sites in an attempt to intimidate voters, a form of voter suppression that goes back to before the civil rights era. He did the same in 2016, along with David Duke and leaders of white nationalist groups. In August, Trump told Fox News he would send sheriffs and other law enforcement to polling places on Election Day, which he likely does not have authority to do.
Asked for comment, Fitzpatrick referred reporters to a letter he said the campaign sent by email to the county’s three commissioners on Tuesday. Deeley and her spokesperson said they had not yet received any letter and had no information on it.
In response to questions about concerns about voter intimidation and security at the satellite offices, Deeley said the city already had sheriffs stationed at some early-voting centers. The city plans to open more locations in the coming weeks.
A Republican National Committee staffer, identified by Fitzpatrick as Andre McCoy, was also at the Wednesday meeting. He would not speak to journalists and directed questions to Fitzpatrick, whom he left with. Fitzpatrick and McCoy referred questions to another person helping field questions from the press, who said they did not work for the campaign. Asked to comment, that person referred reporters to Trump campaign Deputy National Press Secretary Thea McDonald, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Republicans are paying close attention to the polls in Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state that Trump won by just 44,000 votes in 2016. Paid staffers from the RNC observed vote counts in Philadelphia following the June primary, The Intercept reported. The county was one of the slowest in the state to count ballots from the primary: The process took two weeks.
Update: Oct. 1, 2020
This article has been updated to include a legal threat from the Trump campaign against Philadelphia County and that Fitzpatrick had been removed from a satellite election office on Tuesday, as well as a comment from Fetterman.