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How Does Poll Watching Work?

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Go into the polls, and watch very carefully. That's the message that President Trump told his supporters Tuesday night during the debate. This comes after months-long concerted pushes by Trump to cast doubt on the security of mail-in voting, doubts which are not supported by evidence and which election experts say are unfounded.

What would it mean to have large groups of Trump supporters monitoring in-person voting? And is it even legal? To answer some of those questions, I'm joined by Tammy Patrick. She was a local election official in Maricopa County, Ariz., for more than a decade and is now with the Democracy Fund. Welcome.

TAMMY PATRICK: Thank you so much for having me.

MOSLEY: Yes, thank you for being here. So pollwatchers are actually pretty common in elections, and there are rules on how to do it depending on where you live. How does it normally work?

PATRICK: It's absolutely the case that in almost every state - I'm actually not aware of a single state that doesn't allow for some sort of observance in the polling place - that state laws really lay out who can be in a polling place on Election Day. So when we're talking about political party observers, for example, they have very clear definitions in some states as to who they can talk to, how close they can be to the voting equipment or to the official ballots. And it's clearly defined what their role is in the polling place. And that also relates to what they can challenge and what those challenges can be based on. So you can't have individuals going into a polling place and just challenging any individual that they want to in their ability to vote. It has to actually be based on some form of reality and fact.

MOSLEY: OK, so sanctioned observers. What about the president's call to have his supporters go on their own in the polls? Would they be allowed?

PATRICK: So they wouldn't, unless he was calling them to sign up to be a sanctioned observer. Then they would be allowed. So it's important to kind of make that distinction, I think, on what exactly the clarion call was for. And if it was an open call to, you know, anyone to go into any polling place, that's just not allowed under most state laws.

MOSLEY: But they can be outdoors. They can be outside of the polling places.

PATRICK: Yeah, I think that the challenge is going to be outside of the polling place because every state has some sort of electioneering law. And that's where we have to understand where the line is going to be drawn between electioneering, which means, you know, I'm outside of a polling place, I'm wearing all the regalia for either the question on the ballot or my candidate, I'm waving my flags, I'm holding my signs. And that's sanctioned and lawful and protected under the First Amendment. However, it is not lawful or protected for you to step in front of voters and try and prevent them from going to a polling place or, you know, intimidating voters with either other kinds of messaging or yelling at voters or what have you.

When I was an election official in Arizona, we actually had a situation where individuals with semi-automatic weapons had video cameras, and they were going up to voters as they got out of their cars. And if they were Hispanic, they were challenging whether or not they were actual citizens. That is not legal, and that is not allowed.

MOSLEY: What advice would you have for state election officials? I'm thinking very specifically about the fact that there are people who will be working these polls for the first time and may be interacting with people who may be threatening.

PATRICK: I think that it's important to know that very often these calls to action, because this is the way it's played out traditionally, that there is a tactic here that can be used to make sure that individuals start to question whether or not is it safe to even go to the polling place. And that is exactly what the intention is. Either way, though, we aren't in 2016. We're in 2020, and things have changed. And in this moment, I think it's just going to be very important that election officials have good training materials for their poll workers, a checklist so that everyone knows if, in fact, you have concerns, this is who you call. This is what you need to do to either de-escalate the situation or how to report it. I think that that's going to be really critical, that on top of everything else, unfortunately, in this moment, we need to make sure that our elections are protected from adversaries, both foreign and domestic.

MOSLEY: Tammy Patrick is senior adviser to the elections program at the nonpartisan Democracy Fund and is a former election official in Arizona. Thank you.

PATRICK: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.