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Pa. braces for polling place concerns

Written by Brett Sholtis/York Daily Record | Oct 20, 2016 8:12 AM
York_voters.jpg

In this 2013 file photo, York County Director of Elections and Voter Registration, Nikki Suchanic, inputs information from nomination petitions into a spreadsheet at the York County Administrative Building. (Photo: Kate Penn, York Daily Record)

(York) -- In a sign of this stormy election season, the Pennsylvania Department of State has issued a memo to county elections offices called "Guidance on voter intimidation and discriminatory conduct." This set forth no new rules, but highlighted some areas of concern raised in this election.

This comes two months after Republican candidate Donald Trump, speaking in Altoona, urged supporters to go to "certain areas" to make sure voters don't vote multiple times. That comment and others by Trump have sparked fears of voter intimidation for minorities, who are more likely to vote for Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

Gun-toting voters? Maybe 

At some polling places, Pennsylvanians would be allowed to cast their vote while wearing pistols or with rifles strapped on their backs.

"Voters who have a legal right to carry a firearm cannot be prohibited from entering the polling place to vote," the document states. Guns will remain prohibited at polling sites held in buildings where they are not allowed, such as schools and courthouses.

If voters turn out while bearing arms, police may be in a tough situation. State law requires that police remain 100 feet or more from a polling place entrance unless they're called to the scene, the document states.

The Department of State lists "ostentatious showing of weapons" as a form of voter intimidation or discriminatory conduct, creating a gray area for the local officials who might have to make that call. State Department spokeswoman Wanda Murren attempted to clarify, saying that "Something that's meant to be intimidating" would be enough to call in local constables or police.

"As with any kind of alleged violation, it could ultimately come down to the district attorney and the trial," Murren said.

Philadelphia, the state's largest city and a Democratic stronghold, has its own set of rules when it comes to firearms. The city prohibits people from openly carrying firearms, so that would not be allowed at any of its polling places.

Read: No risk of election hack in Adams Co., officials say

Identities challenged

As in past years, Republicans and Democrats are free to apply to work as poll watchers, said Nikki Suchanic, York County's director of elections. That role allows them to join election officials in the area near the voting machines, where they could challenge a voter to prove that they're who they claim to be. Poll watcher certifications are available in York through the Republican and Democratic parties. A candidate also can obtain poll watcher certificates at the county elections office, Suchanic  said.

In 2004, attorneys acting as such poll watchers for the Republican Party challenged the credentials of young voters near University of Pittsburgh, according to a recent Politico Magazine report. The process caused a lengthy delay at the polling place, rattling the local Democratic Party and even leading Pittsburgh Steelers Hall-of-Famer Franco Harris to hand out donuts to students in an attempt to keep them from leaving the polls.

Only first-time voters must provide identification, Murren said, and the state document indicates that "routine and frivolous challenges to voters by election workers and private citizens... made without a stated good faith basis" are not allowed. Every polling place has a judge of election, an elected official, on site. That person, who earns $125 for the day, has the authority to make decisions on such matters.

Concerned about the integrity of this election, the Republican Party is recruiting more poll watchers than in previous years, said Megan Sweeney, a Pennsylvania Republican Party spokeswoman. However, she declined to say whether those watchers will be trained to routinely challenge voters' identities.

"We're always concerned about the integrity of the ballot, making sure it's one person, one vote," Sweeney said.

Any voter who sees something that seems out of sorts at a polling place should notify the judge of elections at that site. If they feel the judge is not helpful, they should call the county board of elections, Suchanic said.

Fears of vote-rigging

Trump has said he believes election officials could "rig" the vote in Clinton's favor. In a recent tweet, Trump wrote, "This election absolutely is being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary - but also at many polling places - SAD."

Read: Trump's 'rigged' election complaints find eager ears while officials fume

The notion that some of Pennsylvania's 9,160 precinct officials are involved in some conspiracy to rig the election is far-fetched to say the least, said Joe Compton, a Republican judge of elections in York Township.

Still, Compton said he understands why people end up doubting that their vote was correctly tallied. He said that the electronic voting machines have to be calibrated to ensure that when a person selects a candidate, using a touch-screen, that the correct candidate is chosen. He's had complaints from voters in past years who found themselves voting for the opposing candidate by accident.

Though accidents happen, Compton said that, in his experience, the voting process is too transparent for vote-rigging to occur.

"In my judgement, the operation of the election boards in Central Pennsylvania is about as flawless as you can get," Compton said.

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.

Published in York

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