At an arena in Wilkes-Barre on Monday, Donald Trump repeated an ominous charge he has been making for months: that voter fraud in Philadelphia could "steal the election."

Trump and others in the conservative sphere have cited the 50 voting divisions in Philadelphia where not a single vote for Mitt Romney was cast in 2012, and hinted at widespread vote-rigging.

Philadelphians on both sides of the aisle - including the head of the local GOP - say that intensely Democratic divisions are just a way of life in a heavily blue city, and that it is to be expected that largely African American neighborhoods would have voted in even stronger numbers for a popular African American president.

"I'm not going to sit up there and talk about the divisions" where no Romney votes were cast, said Joe DeFelice, chairman of the local Republican Party. "They happen to be in areas more prone to vote for Barack Obama than Mitt Romney. I think it's plausible. I understand the demographics of the area."

David Thornburgh, head of the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said flatly that Trump was "making this up."

"It's not based on any evidence, it's not based on any persistent story, and when you pierce the bubble, you end up with a couple isolated stories," he said.

The Committee of Seventy has long called for election reforms in Philadelphia, and authorities have arrested a handful of people in recent years for voter fraud.

None of the cases come close to what the Inquirer once called the city's "biggest voting scandal in the last 50 years." That was the 1993 special election for the Second District State Senate seat, where a federal judge threw out every absentee ballot in the race. The judge ruled that election officials had illegally given those ballots to campaign and party workers, allowing campaign workers to fill them out for voters.

Democratic candidate William Stinson, who had won the seat with 79 percent of the absentee vote, was subsequently removed from office.

Eight people have been charged with voter fraud since 2013 in Philadelphia. For the last two years, the District Attorney's Office has maintained a voter fraud task force.

Four arrested

Even eight voter-fraud arrests is "a big deal, and we need to focus on it," DeFelice said, crediting the District Attorney's Office for prosecuting the cases.

In the most prominent case, four poll workers were arrested for adding six votes to a voting machine to match the number of voters who signed in during the general election in 2014.

Trisha Phipps, a Republican committeewoman who serves as a poll watcher in the 18th Ward, complained about four people working on the First Division's election board adding votes to a machine after the polls were closed, and the District Attorney's Office later charged them.

Two of the accused poll workers pleaded guilty to misdemeanors; one entered the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, which allows her record to be expunged if she stays out of trouble. The fourth case is pending and awaiting a mental competency hearing.

The extra votes were unlikely to have altered the results of any election on that ballot.

Tom Wolf, then running for governor, won the 18th Ward's First Division with 91 percent of the vote. U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, the city's Democratic Party chairman, won the division with 89 percent. The local state representative was running unopposed.

Other cases included a woman who voted on behalf of her mother, an election judge and a minority observer who spoke at the polls before the judge cast a vote on behalf of her son, and a woman who wrote in her own name on a ballot while another voter was in a polling booth. All pleaded guilty.

"The problem here is at the election-board level," DeFelice said. "Do I think there's someone pulling the strings for diabolic systemic voter fraud? Do I think it's a coordinated effort? Probably not."

He said that sending poll watchers out across the city remained important and that he was "actually happy people are shedding light" on the issue.

Stirring up trouble

Thornburgh said there was room for improvement in the city's elections. Better pay and more training for election boards, better assistance for people with disabilities, and more modern voting technology would go a long way, he said.

"There's much that we could do to improve the system," he said. "But there's a real difference between human errors that are summed up in those flaws and the kind of wholesale fraud that Donald Trump is suggesting is out there. Donald Trump's not after improving the system; he's just after trying to stir up some trouble."

Trump has repeatedly warned about voter fraud in Pennsylvania and exhorted his supporters at rallies in the state to visit "certain areas" - seen as code for big cities like Philadelphia - to serve as "election observers."

But the state Election Code already makes provisions for poll watchers, who must live in the county where they observe the polls.

Al Schmidt, vice chairman of the City Commissioners, the three-member board that runs elections in Philadelphia, said his office had poll-watcher applications from more than 1,300 Democrats and more than 200 Republicans as of Friday.

Democrats outnumber Republicans, 7-1, in Philadelphia.

Schmidt said he expected more applications before the Nov. 8 general election and said most are submitted by the city's Democratic and Republican Parties on behalf of the potential poll watchers.

DeFelice said he was still recruiting poll workers. "We're trying to work within the system," he said.

Thornburgh said he was angered by Trump's comments as the city gears up for Election Day.

"As in many other circumstances, I wish he would keep his thoughts to himself," he said. "This is not helpful. It's irresponsibly creating doubt about maybe our most fundamental democratic institution."

215-854-2961@aubreyjwhelan