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A bill loosening rules for Pennsylvania poll watchers heads to Gov. Wolf’s desk

  • Sam Dunklau
Poll watchers outside Temple Brith Achim Synagogue, the polling place for Upper Merion Gulph 2 and King 1-2, on Election Day, May 21, 2019.

 Emily Previti / PA Post

Poll watchers outside Temple Brith Achim Synagogue, the polling place for Upper Merion Gulph 2 and King 1-2, on Election Day, May 21, 2019.

State lawmakers are sending Gov. Tom Wolf a GOP-led measure to expand what poll watchers are allowed to do during elections.

Under the bill from Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin), people running for office would be able to appoint up to three registered voters – instead of two – to keep tabs on vote casting and counting at any polling place in the state. 

Observers currently have to live in the county where they’ll be watching, and must keep a certain distance away from the proceedings. But under the measure approved almost entirely along party lines in both chambers, watchers would be allowed to stand at least six feet from election workers and voters, with an option to move closer.

“Poll watchers are essential in safeguarding Pennsylvania’s elections from fraud and irregularities,” Mastriano wrote in a co-sponsorship memo. The Franklin County lawmaker has falsely asserted that the 2020 election exposed widespread problems in the state’s election system.

Multiple federal investigations as well as court rulings and state-mandated audits of ballots from every Pennsylvania county have turned up no evidence of election problems that were out of the ordinary. The Department of State has said the last several election cycles ran smoothly.

But Mastriano’s Republican colleagues have been in lock-step with him on the issue

“Having more than one individual there from all parties gives that transparency and adds one more measure of voter confidence,” Rep. Dawn Keefer (R-York) said in a House committee last week.

Rep. Eric Nelson (R-Westmoreland) pointed to the bill’s inspiration: a false claim by former President Donald Trump’s campaign that poll watchers couldn’t get close enough to Philadelphia vote counters in 2020.

“This bill helps to tackle a major issue,” Nelson said. “There were individuals who were not afforded an opportunity to review and watch during the election.”

Trump himself has used the purported incidents to prop up false voter fraud claims. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in Nov. 2020 that election workers had given watchers enough access. Contrary to the Trump campaign’s claims, one watcher who had been initially denied entry at a Philadelphia polling place was ultimately allowed in. 

Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Centre) said looser rules for poll watchers might encourage them to intimidate participants and workers in future elections.

“You’re going to need more sheriffs. You’re going to need more constables,” he said last week. “I don’t understand why they can’t see what’s going to happen. This bill is going to add more distrust within the election system.” 

Supporters counter by pointing out that the measure would double the fines and jail time for anyone convicted of the crime.

Since Sen. Mastriano won the GOP nomination for governor last month, Republican leadership at the state Capitol has aired several of his bills in committee.

One aimed at improving data on the number of opioid overdoses may be voted on in the Senate in the coming days. Another making certain types of financial information for state-related universities publicly accessible cleared a Senate committee Tuesday.

The one expanding poll watcher rights is among the first to be sent to Gov. Wolf.

Wolf’s office said in a statement that he “strongly opposes” the bill, setting it up for a likely veto that stands little chance of being overturned by Republican supporters.

“[This is] just one more attempt by the lawmaker [Mastriano] — who has repeatedly sought to undermine the integrity of our election process — to encourage voter intimidation,” spokeswoman Beth Rementer said.

The senator signed a letter asking Congress to delay certifying the 2020 election – and was also filmed marching with protestors past police barricades at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.

Mastriano is vowing to approve broader poll watcher rights, if elected governor.

Pa. Republican lawmakers and the U.S. Capitol attack

As part of WITF’s commitment to standing with facts, and because the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol was an attempt to overthrow representative democracy in America, we are marking elected officials’ connections to the insurrection. Read more about this commitment.

Sen. Mastriano (R-Franklin) is among the several dozen state lawmakers who signed a letter asking Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s 2020 election result. Rep. Keefer (R-York) and Rep. Nelson (R-Westmoreland) signed another letter asking Congress to object to that result. Both were signed despite no evidence calling Pennsylvania’s vote count into question.

These actions supported the election-fraud lie, which led to the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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