County-level Republican Party officials in several states are reporting a surge in the number of citizens signing up to be poll watchers on Election Day amid concerns over voter fraud and intimidation.
At the Arizona Republican Party’s 2012 poll worker training, 50 to 60 people showed up, said spokesman Tim Sifert. This year, more than 1,000 people have signed up for training so they can be placed at polls to serve as observers.
“It’s been more than 10 times the number of people who are interested this time around,” he said.
Mr. Sifert attributes the surge in interest among Arizona voters in part to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s warnings of a “rigged” election and his call for citizens to monitor the polls for fraud.
But local discussion about a new ban on “ballot harvesting,” or the practice of collecting voters’ mail-in ballots, also may have contributed to voters’ awareness of the potential for fraud, he said.
In the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Loudoun County Republican Committee Chairman Will Estrada said interest is through the roof among party members looking to work on Nov. 8 — whether as a Virginia poll watcher or a precinct official, or just by handing out literature outside polling places.
“It’s massive this year. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mr. Estrada, whose involvement in the county Republican Party dates back to 2004. “I am seeing a lot of new faces. These are people who have not really been involved in our committee before.”
He estimates that the Loudoun County Republican Party already has trained enough volunteers to staff 60 of the county’s 93 polling precincts.
Interest also has been high in Texas’ largest counties. The Houston Chronicle reported that Republican Party officials in Dallas, Bexar, Tarrant and Travis counties have been inundated with poll watcher volunteers.
A voter fraud investigation is reportedly underway in Tarrant County, home to Fort Worth, raising concern over the use of mail-in ballots, which allow people to vote from their homes without any ID or verification of identity.
“Everybody seems to be of the opinion that we have more people wanting to be poll watchers than we’ve ever had,” said Tim O’Hare, chairman of the Tarrant County Republican Party. “I think that’s a big part of what is driving it.”
Political parties, candidates and ballot issue committees typically can appoint poll watchers, and most states allow at least one observer from each party to monitor voting activity. Rules vary by state in what actions poll watchers are allowed to take if they believe something untoward has taken place at a precinct.
Poll watchers serve as a line of defense against potential voter fraud or election rule-breaking, bringing up concerns to election officials or the political parties themselves so issues can be addressed.
“Our poll watchers are instructed to observe and report if they see anything that seems fishy,” said Philadelphia Republican City Committee Chairman Joseph DeFelice, who estimates that 1,000 Republican poll watchers will be dispersed throughout the city.
It was a Republican observer who in 2012 forwarded a complaint about a mural of President Obama that covered the wall inside one Philadelphia polling precinct, Mr. DeFelice said. A judge ordered poll workers to cover the mural.
But inexperienced or poorly trained poll watchers can be part of the problem, according to nonpartisan civil and voting rights groups.
“There are many instances where official poll watchers are poorly trained,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “There is also concern about volunteers recruited by particular campaigns who take on a heightened sense of responsibility and threaten rights of voters.”
Poll watchers can suggest that a voter’s credentials be challenged, but observers typically are supposed to bring concerns to poll officials rather than interacting with voters directly, said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Their enthusiasm can get out of hand. Mr. Greenbaum recalled committee observers having to take action in a prior election to get a poll watcher removed from an Arizona precinct after the person interfered with voting activities.
“It took several hours,” he said. “The poll watcher was interacting with voters directly and really taking over what was happening at the polls.”
Nonpartisan observers will be on the lookout for more than just overzealous poll watchers, there is also concern from civil rights organizations that worry religious and racial minorities may be targets for voter intimidation outside the polling sites.
To aid in efforts to combat voter intimidation, the Lawyer’s Committee is planning it’s “biggest operation” to date, 4,500 nonpartisan legal volunteers to staff Election Day hotlines and 2,500 on-the-ground observers this year, said Executive Director Kristen Clarke.
The reported number of partisan poll watchers has surged as the Justice Department deploys fewer specially trained election observers as a result of a Supreme Court opinion that gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Fourteen states will have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election. Confusion over some of the laws, including voter ID laws, are rampant.
Ms. Clarke said a voter hotline has already received a significant number of complaints that signage in Texas polling places during early voting still indicates that an ID is necessary, even though a judge ruled that accommodations can be made for people who cannot “reasonably obtain” one.
Mr. O’Hare questions whether concern over intimidation at polling places by poll watchers is overblown.
“Most of our poll watchers are 70-something-and-up-year-old ladies,” he said. “I’m not sure how anyone could be intimidated by poll watchers in Tarrant County.”
But other Republican officials say they have provided high-quality training to potential poll watchers and expect few problems.
“There is a lot of concern about poll watchers overstepping their bounds, and we have had poll watchers who haven’t done very good jobs,” said Ralph Weber, poll watcher subcommittee chairman for the Republican Party in Madison County, Alabama. “But we are spending a lot of time on training, giving them instructions to take with them, giving them ways that will not be obstructive to the process. I think we are really trying to do our best and make sure this is an open and honest election.”