President Donald Trump closed out his first presidential debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden on Tuesday night by repeating on national television his false claim that poll watchers had been blocked from observing the first day of in-person early voting in Philadelphia.
“Today there was a big problem,” Trump said in the closing moments of the debate. “In Philadelphia they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers. A very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.”
But there were several reasons why elections staff did not allow members of the public to arbitrarily enter their offices. The Trump campaign has no poll watchers approved to work in Philadelphia at the moment. There are no actual polling places open in the city right now. And elections officials are following coronavirus safety regulations, such as those limiting the number of people indoors.
It’s true that voters were casting ballots Tuesday, but the locations where they were doing so are satellite elections offices where mail ballots can be requested, completed, and submitted. Poll watchers don’t have the same rights at such locations as they do at traditional polling places on Election Day, officials said.
“We don’t give someone a poll watcher certificate to … watch somebody fill out their ballot at their kitchen table,” said Al Schmidt, a Republican and one of the city commissioners, who run elections.
Trump made the false claim earlier in the day on Twitter, first retweeting son Eric and then going further to accuse city officials of corruption. “Wow. Won’t let Poll Watchers & Security into Philadelphia Voting Places,” he said. “There is only one reason why. Corruption!!! Must have a fair Election.”
The claims come as Trump, who is consistently trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden in national polls and surveys of critical battleground states like Pennsylvania, has sought to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the election with false attacks on mail voting as susceptible to widespread fraud. He has also suggested he may not accept the results if he loses.
State law allows campaigns and parties to appoint multiple poll watchers per precinct, who are permitted inside polling places to observe and, in some situations, raise legal challenges. But no poll watchers have been certified yet for the Trump campaign, the Republican Party, or other Republican campaigns, said Nick Custodio, deputy city commissioner under Lisa Deeley, chair of the city commissioners.
The commissioners opened the first satellite offices Tuesday for a new form of early voting using mail ballots. At the satellite locations and the main elections office in City Hall, voters can apply for a mail ballot and receive one on demand, as well as fill it out and turn it in.
At least one woman claiming to be a Trump campaign poll watcher was barred from entering one of those satellite offices Tuesday in the Overbrook section of West Philadelphia.
But, Custodio said, “These are not polling places.” Instead, they are just like the main office in City Hall, with no specific poll watcher rights. “The only people who are there are those who are working or those who are availing themselves” of the office’s services, he said.
Workers are also being strict about social distancing, Custodio said: “We have to be extra cautious about maintaining social distance and making sure the people are supposed to be there and limiting crowds.”
And just like in City Hall, Custodio said, members of the public can be asked to leave for any number of reasons.
Thea McDonald, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, said Tuesday that the campaign has "demanded a response from the city commissioners and, if necessary, will pursue all available legal and equitable remedies.”
About 1 p.m. Tuesday, a woman approached the supervisor at the entrance of the satellite office at Overbrook Elementary School. She said she was there to monitor “the integrity of the election” and asked to be allowed inside. The supervisor told her she was not allowed inside the building unless she was using the office’s services.
The woman did not present any sort of certificate of being an official poll watcher, but calmly stated that she had a right to be inside.
The woman told The Inquirer she was “hired by the Trump campaign to oversee the integrity of the election.” She said she was paid to monitor the West Philadelphia site. She would not provide her name or any further information, and she left the area shortly afterward.
The Trump campaign, in a complaint filed in federal court in Pittsburgh in July, accused state and county election officials of “the arbitrary and illegal preclusion of poll watchers from being present in all locations where votes are being cast,” because mail ballots are not being returned to official polling places before Election Day.
The complaint seeks a ruling or injunction “that permits poll watchers, regardless of their county of residence, to be present in all locations where votes are cast or counted, including without limitation all locations where absentee or mail-in ballots are being returned.”
That lawsuit is ongoing. The state Supreme Court ruled earlier this month against the Trump campaign’s request to allow poll watchers to operate in counties other than the one where they are registered to vote.
The Pennsylvania Department of State declined to comment Tuesday, citing the ongoing federal litigation.
Mayor Jim Kenney on Tuesday urged Philadelphians to "reject these false accusations. “We will undertake a fair and accurate election according to the laws of this commonwealth, not the president’s tweets,” he said in a statement.
Trump’s campaign has been aware since 2016 of the state law regulating poll watchers. While campaigning four years ago, Trump frequently made ominous and unsubstantiated claims during rallies in Pennsylvania about efforts to “steal” or “rig” the election in favor of Hillary Clinton. “It is so important for you to go out and watch other communities,” he said at one point in Western Pennsylvania that year.
“Be poll watchers when you go there," he said in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do.”
The Pennsylvania Election Code has held since 1937 that only candidates and political parties can appoint poll watchers. Those watchers must have a certificate verifying their status and be registered to vote in the county where they are watching a polling place.
The Pennsylvania Democratic Party filed a federal lawsuit nine days before the 2016 election, accusing the Trump campaign of “conspiring to threaten, intimidate, and thereby prevent minority voters in urban neighborhoods from voting in the 2016 election” by sending in out-of-town poll watchers.
U.S. District Judge Gerald Pappert, a former Republican state attorney general, rejected a request then from the Trump campaign to allow poll watchers to come from anywhere in the state.