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Federal judge rejects Pa. GOP bid to change poll-watching rules

A federal judge has rejected a bid by the Pennsylvania Republican Party to legalize a call from presidential nominee Donald Trump for supporters to serve as itinerant Election Day poll watchers.

A federal judge has rejected a bid by the Pennsylvania Republican Party to legalize a call from presidential nominee Donald Trump for supporters to serve as itinerant Election Day poll watchers.

U.S. District Judge Gerald Pappert, a Republican and former state attorney general, took a dim view of his party's request to rewrite the state's 79-year-old Election Code just days before Tuesday's general election.

"There is no need for this judicial fire drill and [the Republican Party] offers no reasonable explanation or justification for the harried process they created," Pappert wrote in a ruling released Thursday.

Pappert, as he did during a hearing on the matter last week, noted that legislation to amend the Election Code was introduced in the state House in January 2015. The Republican-controlled House did not bring that measure up for a full vote.

The Election Code requires poll watchers, appointed by candidates or political parties, to serve in the county where they are registered to vote.

Trump, in rallies in Pennsylvania and other states, has repeatedly claimed - absent evidence - that the election is "rigged."

He has called on supporters in rural and exurban parts of Pennsylvania to travel to Philadelphia and other urban areas on Election Day to serve as poll watchers, claiming voter fraud is a prevalent problem in those places.

Nine people have been prosecuted in Philadelphia since 2013 for voter fraud. Democratic and Republican officials in the city have soundly rejected the claim that voter fraud is a widespread problem.

Pappert, in his ruling, said the Republican Party's "preoccupation with the role of poll watchers to deter purported voter fraud disregards other aspects of the regulatory framework" such as election board workers from the Democratic and Republican Parties who oversee polling place operations and have more authority than poll watchers.

And he said the Republican Party's claims of voter fraud are "based on speculation . . . and the unproven assumption" that traveling poll watchers would be able to stop that crime.

Megan Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Republican Party, called Pappert's ruling "a blow to openness and transparency in our electoral system."

"We will continue to advocate for an open and fair electoral process and we will review our legal options going forward," Sweeney said.

Testimony from last Friday's hearing showed the Republican Party in Philadelphia could fully staff all of the city's 1,686 voting divisions if just 4.1 percent of the party's registered voters volunteered.

Pappert noted the party was "reticent to admit the extent to which suspected voter fraud in Philadelphia motivates their request for an injunction."

That may be because the Democratic National Committee, in a federal claim filed in New Jersey last week, asked a judge to hold the Republican National Committee in contempt for allegedly violating a 1982 consent decree that still blocks the GOP from intimidating voters in predominantly African American polling places.

The DNC cited as proof Trump's exhortations for his supporters to travel to places like Philadelphia to watch for voter fraud.

Pappert's ruling does not cite the RNC consent decree or the DNC call for a finding of contempt.

Pappert ultimately ruled in favor of the Pennsylvania Department of State, which contended during last Friday's hearing that the GOP's legal gambit was "inviting chaos to the process" for Election Day.

"There is good reason to avoid last-minute intervention in a state's election process," Pappert wrote. "Any intervention at this point risks practical concerns, including disruption, confusion or other unforeseen deleterious effects."

215-854-5973 @ByChrisBrennan