How the campaigns are preparing to deploy thousands of poll watchers

For the first time in decades, the Republican National Committee can deploy thousands of poll watchers on Election Day. Democrats are turning to technology in an effort to up their own poll-watching efforts amid concerns about how President Donald Trump’s supporters will respond to his calls to “go into the polls.”

Republicans and Democrats are signing up tens of thousands of people to be poll watchers across the country, in an effort to act as the backbone for the campaigns’ sprawling legal operations, keeping a close eye for any anomalies.

Through meetings and virtual trainings, each party is meticulously training their poll watchers to document, record and quickly pass along any important incidents they witness to their respective legal teams, which could later be used as evidence in legal disputes.

Beyond the potential for aiding legal battles over disputed election results, poll watchers are expected to alert the campaigns quickly to problems like long lines, broken voter machines or problems with voter rolls — issues that are likely to pop up and often lead to quick legal action to allow polling places to stay open later than scheduled. They also can help campaigns’ get-out-the-vote operation by alerting them to areas where the number of voters is low.

“Poll watchers of each party observing the entire voting process is essential for validating free and fair elections,” said Ben Ginsberg, a prominent GOP election lawyer and CNN analyst. “Poll watchers flag irregularities as they happen and, after the votes are counted, validate the results’ accuracy through the adjudication of any irregularities they find.”

This year, poll watchers could play an even bigger role than in recent elections. That’s because a 1982 consent decree limiting the party’s poll-monitoring, put in place over allegations of voter intimidation in New Jersey, has expired, meaning the Republican National Committee and the GOP nominee can work together on poll-watching operations for the first time since the 1980 presidential election.

In addition, the expansion of mail-in voting due to the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked hundreds of pre-election lawsuits, and more could be coming after the election as mail-in ballots are counted. In many states, poll watchers can be looking over the shoulders of those mail-in ballot counters, potentially challenging ballots over issues like signature verification.

Poll watchers are “integral to the legal operation” and will be “the eyes and ears for what’s taking place at the polling locations and to report any news,” said one GOP source involved in the effort.

Democrats, however, have raised alarms at Trump’s rhetoric, saying at the first debate that his supporters should “go to the polls and watch very carefully.” Local election officials warned the comments sounded more like voter intimidation than just poll watching, and they’re bracing for potential conflict on Election Day. In many states, official poll watching operations are carefully regulated, including limiting the number of watchers per campaign, but those rules typically don’t go beyond a certain distance from the polls.

Yes, there’s an app for that

On the Democratic side, the Democratic National Committee and the Joe Biden campaign are rolling out a large-scale, poll-watching operation and new technology as part of a larger voter protection effort.

Through a little known about DNC-designed app, called “LBJ,” which stands for Lawyers Bound for Justice, poll observers across the country will be able to create a ticket to log any incidents in real time. The app will also allow them to send documentation that could later be used as evidence in litigation. The Democrats are keeping the details of their new app closely held before the election — when asked to explain “LBJ,” the Biden campaign and DNC were unwilling to discuss the project in detail.

Some information about the technology is out there. According to a DNC Tech Team Report posted online, poll watchers will create a ticket that goes to a “network of virtual boiler rooms,” where staff and volunteers will “coordinate the response to the incidents as they occur.” Twenty-eight states have voter protection directors already in place f it is determined that legal action must be taken, according to a person familiar with the effort, as the campaign has fanned out lawyers across the country in addition to its poll watching operation.

For Republicans, new Election Day technology is still a sore subject. In 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign launched a new app called ORCA, which was designed to streamline the Republican get-out-the-vote operation. Instead, the app named for the killer whale ran into problems and was a bust on Election Day.

‘Be the eyes and ears’

But that doesn’t mean Republicans aren’t meticulously preparing. Trump’s campaign has rolled out a detailed poll watching operation with trainings for their official poll watchers on what to look for — and not to look for — to communicate with the campaign’s lawyers on the ground.

Lawyers will be on the ground across the country and officials have said they plan for more than 50,000 poll watchers to serve as lawyers’ eyes and ears on the ground in key swing states, should they need to file any sort of immediate litigation including potential injunctions stopping vote counting in areas.

Two sources close to the GOP operation say the goal is not to litigate every issue that arises, and that most of the issues will be worked out at the poll places.

While Trump has focused on baseless claims of fraud surrounding this year’s election, the campaign tells observers to focus is on administrative errors and incompetency, not necessarily fraud.

“One of the big factors of doing this is to make sure election administration is going well,” a source familiar with the operation told CNN, pointing to issues like not segregating provisional ballots or not checking IDs as potential issues.

Similar to the Democrats’ “network of boiler rooms,” Trump campaign poll watchers are instructed to bring up an issue through the chain of command who will have offices in each state to “triage Election Day issues that arise,” said one person familiar with the effort. If it’s a large state, there could be multiple command centers in a hotel, ballroom or state party headquarters. If an issue requires wider attention, it will be brought up to the national command center with the campaign’s key lawyers, another source said.

An RNC official said there are dedicated Election Day state directors in targeted states, and the party is ensuring poll watchers receive “rigorous training and abide by each state’s laws for observing the voting process and upholding election integrity.”

The campaign has prepared state-by-state videos with details on what poll watchers should be doing — even placing an emphasis on being courteous to Democrats.

“Be the eyes and ears of RNC Trump Victory in the room and diligently represent the President’s interests,” the Trump campaign Pennsylvania poll watching training stresses. “At the same time, please be courteous to board of elections staff and other watchers — yes, even our Democrat friends.”

In Colorado, Trump poll watchers are told that a voter having out-of-state license plates or not speaking English are not valid reasons for a challenge. “In order to challenge, you have to have concrete personal evidence of the facts,” the video says.

And the Trump campaign isn’t totally eschewing new digital technology. Poll watchers in Wisconsin and Iowa were told they could be asked to download an election registration app before Election Day.

“An observer may be expected to track voter participation through a digital phone application and a paper copy to ensure voters turn out to vote…once,” the Wisconsin video says.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up