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June 07, 2022

Republican-backed bill would expand poll watcher eligibility in Pennsylvania

Democrats decry the legislation, which eliminates residency requirements, as a pathway to voter intimidation

A bill that would eliminate the residency requirement for poll watchers in Pennsylvania, allowing them to the observe voting and ballot-counting anywhere in the state, was passed Monday by the state Senate. 

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Doug Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, who hailed it as a way to ensure trust in the state's elections. Democrats criticized it as a means of voter intimidation. 

Currently, poll workers only are permitted to observe the election process at polls located within their home counties. The bill would allow any registered voter in Pennsylvania to work as a poll watcher in any county, municipality or election precinct in the state. 

It also would increase the number of poll watchers each candidate may have at a precinct from two to three. They would be permitted to be within 6 feet of poll workers during the ballot-counting process, with a "clear line of sight," though they are not allowed to interfere with the counters. 

"Transparency is key to rebuilding trust in our election system, and that starts with ensuring all parties have a fair opportunity to view the vote-counting process," Mastriano said

Mastriano said the bill does not change the duties or responsibilities of poll watchers, and does not permit voter intimidation of any kind. The bill penalizes voter intimidation with a fine of up to $10,000 or up to three years in prison. 

Mastriano has made election reform a hallmark of his gubernatorial campaign, which now puts him against Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee. He has frequently promoted false claims about widespread election fraud during the 2020 presidential election and was present outside of the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection. 

The Wolf administration strongly opposes the bill, said Elizabeth Rementer, press secretary for Gov. Tom Wolf.

"It does nothing to increase access to voting and is just one more attempt by the lawmaker — who has repeatedly sought to undermine the integrity of our election process — to encourage voter intimidation," Rementer said. "Republicans should focus their efforts on election reform measures that ensure that voters can safely and freely exercise their right to vote." 

Democratic Sen. Jay Costa, the state Senate minority leader, told PennLive that the provision requiring poll watchers be permitted within 6 feet of vote counters implies there's something "nefarious" going on with Pennsylvania's vote-counting process.

"I trust the people who count these ballots," Costa said. "I don't think that there's any fraud in the work they do. This legislation implies that there's fraud or something going on with election workers."

The bill, introduced in April 2021, passed with a 30-19 vote. Only one Democrat, Lehigh County's Lisa Boscola, joined Senate Republicans in supporting it. It heads to the Republican-led state House of Representatives.

The controversy surrounding poll watchers in Pennsylvania's elections is the result of a lingering claim that former President Donald Trump made during a September 2020 with Joe Biden. He falsely claimed poll watchers were barred from entering voting locations in Philadelphia during the June 2020 primary election. 

"In Philadelphia, they went in to watch, they were — they are called poll watchers," Trump said during the debate. "A very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren't allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things." 

Trump continued to make unsubstantiated claims of election fraud in Philadelphia in the aftermath of his loss in the 2020 presidential election. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against him, finding Philadelphia followed state law with its protocols for poll watchers.