HARRISBURG - A proposal to change Pennsylvania law to let poll watchers serve outside their home counties has drawn opposition from Democrats, who say it would open the door to voter intimidation.
The legislation, House Bill 29, has a ways to go before it can become law. It is positioned for a final vote in the House, and a spokesman for the Republican majority leader said Friday it might be brought up this month. A spokeswoman for the Senate majority leader said Republicans have not discussed the proposal, and Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, opposes it.
But its prime sponsor, Rep. Rick Saccone (R., Elizabeth Township), said he is pushing hard for a vote. Saccone insists his bill is misunderstood. He says he is proposing the change because it would be easier to fill the volunteer positions if residents of one county could help out in another county. Counties would still have to certify the poll watchers, he said.
"You can't be a roaming band of poll watchers, coming in disrupting things," he said. "They can't disrupt anything. Poll watchers are only there to observe and report. They're there to make sure things are running properly."
State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) says he doesn't believe it. He said the bill is designed to cause disruption at polling places across Pennsylvania, but particularly in places with high numbers of African American and Latino voters.
"This is part of a long history of folks trying to disrupt the foundation of our democracy and trying to interfere with the free and equal exercise of the right to vote," he said. "We've seen this before."
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has encouraged supporters in Pennsylvania to watch for fraud on Election Day.
In Pennsylvania, political parties and candidates can designate poll watchers, who must then be credentialed by the county in which they are registered to vote. Poll watchers can issue challenges, based on a voter's identity or residency, which they are supposed to address to the judge of elections.
U.S. states have different rules on whether poll watchers must be registered to vote in the county or precinct or just somewhere in the state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The House bill was originally written to take effect 60 days after becoming law, but on Sept. 21, Republicans changed that in a nearly party-line vote so the provisions would take effect immediately - in time for the Nov. 8 election.
"This presidential election is probably going to be the most important election in recent history, and I think it's only fair that Republicans and Democrats alike be able to have poll watchers in all the polling places," said Rep. Dan Moul (R., Adams), who offered the amendment that would make the proposed change effective as soon as the bill were to become law.
State Rep. Brian Sims (D., Phila.) said he believes the bill is targeted at his city.
"Because Republicans are not able to put enough Republicans in polls in Philadelphia, they want the state's permission to bring them in from elsewhere," he said.
House Democrats strongly oppose the bill, saying they believe it would lead to voter intimidation, said spokesman Bill Patton, who called it "an eleventh-hour attempt to meddle in well-established election processes when there's no need to do so." He said there are enough Republicans and Democrats in every county to serve as poll watchers.
The governor also believes the bill would lead to voter intimidation, said his spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan, who added that existing law ensures the integrity of elections.
Individual counties are responsible for administering elections in Pennsylvania, and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has expressed concerns about the proximity to the election, though it has not opposed the bill, said executive director Douglas Hill.
The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania opposes the bill because of the timing, said executive director Suzanne Almeida.
"Changing the rules this close throws everything off, puts a bigger burden on local election officials, puts a burden on the candidates and parties," she said.