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Despite Trump's warning of fraud, there's little sign of interest in poll-watching

Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania again on Monday, and if the Republican nominee for president sticks to the same script from recent rallies here, he will make a claim and then a request.

Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania again on Monday, and if the Republican nominee for president sticks to the same script from recent rallies here, he will make a claim and then a request.

First Trump will suggest that his victory in Pennsylvania is at risk from the threat of voter fraud in "certain areas," widely heard as code for urban centers like Philadelphia.

Then he will ask his supporters to gather their friends after voting to visit polling places in those "certain areas" to watch for evidence of voter fraud.

Trump's campaign website asks supporters to "volunteer to be a Trump election observer" with a plea that doubles as a swipe at the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. "Help me stop crooked Hillary from rigging this election!" the website says.

Trump's campaign last week declined to provide information on how many people have volunteered as "election observers."

The Pennsylvania Election Code sets clear rules for the post of poll watcher during elections.

Candidates and political parties may appoint poll watchers, who must be registered to vote in the county where they will serve.

Trump is scheduled to hold rallies Monday in Beaver County and then Luzerne County. Any of his supporters registered to vote in those counties would be ineligible to serve as poll watchers in Philadelphia or any other Pennsylvania county.

State and Philadelphia Republican leaders say they have seen no unusual uptick in interest in poll-watching during the Nov. 8 general election.

"Do I see an extraordinary amount of interest?" said Joe DeFelice, chairman of the Republican Party in Philadelphia. "I'd say no. It's about average."

Al Schmidt, vice chairman of the City Commissioners and the lone Republican on the three-member board that runs Philadelphia's elections, said his office had fielded no calls or inquiries from people outside the city interested in serving as poll watchers here.

"There's definitely not an uptick," Schmidt said.

The Pennsylvania Republican Party also says there has been no increase in interest.

"Interest in serving as a poll watcher is on par with interest during other presidential and midterm election years," said Megan Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the state party.

Anyone not voting or acting as an election officer or poll watcher must stay at least 10 feet from the entrance of a polling place, according to the state Election Code, which says it is a felony to use "intimidation, threats, force or violence with design to influence unduly or overawe" a voter.

Trump isn't alone in calling for election observers.

The O.V. Catto Voter Empowerment Initiative, named for the black civil rights activist slain in Philadelphia on Election Day in 1871, is organizing churches, unions, and civic and community groups to monitor polling places.

Joe Certaine, who served in the city and state administrations when Ed Rendell was mayor and governor, said the group's efforts would focus on outside of polling places.

"We've targeted 16 counties in Pennsylvania where we suspect some activities related to voter suppression may take place," Certaine said. "Most voter suppression or harassment or whatever you want to call it takes place outside of the polling place, before the voter gets to the door."

There is legislation pending in the state House that would loosen the Election Code's rules on poll watchers, allowing candidates to recruit them to serve in any county in the state.

State Rep. Rick Saccone, an Allegheny County Republican and Trump supporter, introduced the legislation in January, months before it was clear who his party's nominee would be.

"This has nothing to do with Trump," Saccone said. "Both sides should want this bill. Both sides should want an honest and fair election."

Saccone last week said the General Assembly could pass his legislation in time for the Nov. 8 election but complained about coverage from the "liberal media" that has caused it to lose momentum.

The goal is not to have poll watchers disrupt elections, Saccone said.

"They have to be invited by a candidate," he said. "They're not roving bands of gypsy poll watchers."

Rob Gleason, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said that the GOP has gotten better at recruiting poll watchers in Philadelphia but that there are still polling places that will not be covered in this election.

Gleason said more poll watchers would tamp down suspicions about voter fraud in Philadelphia.

"Having both parties represented is a step toward confidence by the electorate that it is a fair election, so these complaints can go away," Gleason said.

Still, the GOP chairman doesn't share Trump's opinion that the only way he can lose Pennsylvania is through voter fraud.

"I am not afraid of big elections like this one coming up being stolen from us," Gleason said. "Not at all. I like to believe in the integrity of the Democrats in Philadelphia."

215-854-5973 @ByChrisBrennan