As In-Person Voting Approaches, Officials Warn Against Intimidation By 'Poll Watchers' President Trump has urged his supporters to go to the polls and watch for any possible voter fraud, but local officials are spelling out the things that poll watchers can and cannot do.
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As In-Person Voting Approaches, Officials Warn Against Intimidation By 'Poll Watchers'

Voters wait in a snaking line in Fairfax County, Va., in September 2020. Tyrone Turner/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/DCist/WAMU

With in-person early voting set to begin next week in D.C. and Maryland, the attorneys general of both jurisdictions say they will be watching for any instances of voter intimidation — especially at the hands of poll watchers or partisans who have been sent to monitor polling places.

Their warnings come in the wake of calls from President Trump for his supporters to "go into the polls and watch very carefully" for instances of voter fraud. But some Democrats and voting rights groups say those poll-watching efforts could amount to voter intimidation, pointing to a pro-Trump rally at an early voting site in Fairfax County last month as an example. The county helped escort voters past the crowd to avoid conflicts, though the Fairfax County Republicans countered that it was a "peaceful" and "upbeat" rally that followed local laws.

"While there are authorized 'poll watchers' who monitor polls on Election Day, their duties are clearly laid out, and they do not include what President Trump has suggested. Voter harassment and intimidation will not be tolerated in Virginia," said Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.

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Over the last two weeks, the attorneys general from D.C., Maryland and Virginia — all Democrats — have issued guidance on how to spot violations of the law.

In all three jurisdictions, political parties or campaigns can assign someone to serve as poll watcher or observer inside a polling place, though those individuals have to be registered ahead of time or submit an authorization form to an election official. Poll watchers also have to follow a number of rules, including not interfering with a voter casting their ballot and not wearing clothing that bears political messages.

In Maryland, a poll watcher can challenge a person's right to vote, but only if they have a "reasonable basis for asserting that a voter is not whom he or she claims to be." In that case, the voter can still cast a provisional ballot. Poll watchers can also keep a running tally of who has voted. (This also applies in D.C.) In Virginia, a poll watcher can stand close enough to the check-in desk to hear what's being discussed, but cannot stand close enough to a voting machine to see who someone is voting for. They're also allowed to have a phone with them, but cannot take pictures or video. (The same goes for Maryland and D.C.)

All three jurisdictions also prohibit what's known as "electioneering" — any campaign-related activity like handing out literature, speaking to voters or in some cases even wearing campaign clothing — within a certain radius of ballot drop boxes and polling places. In Maryland, it's 100 feet from a polling place, while in D.C. it's 50 feet and, in Virginia, the no-electioneering radius is 40 feet from a polling place. The use of loudspeakers is also prohibited within 300 feet of the entrance a polling place.

There's one other issue at play in Virginia: guns. In a report published last month, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence listed Virginia as one of five states that hosts both a hotly contested election and permissive gun laws. In a letter to Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) last month, Attorney General Herring said that Virginia already bans guns at certain locations used as polling places, like schools and courthouses. And a new law passed by the Democratic majority in Richmond empowers localities to go further. Last month lawmakers in Fairfax County voted to ban guns or ammunition in county buildings. (Similar bans have been approved in Arlington County and Alexandria.)

Still, those rules wouldn't necessarily apply to long lines of voters that snake off of public property. In that case, Herring said the Virginia law prohibiting the use of a firearm to "induce fear" in others could be used. (D.C. and Maryland more broadly ban guns on public property.)

All three attorneys general say they will be on the lookout for any cases of voter intimidation or harassment and will prosecute those cases accordingly.

"Voter harassment and intimidation is illegal and will not be tolerated in Maryland. Anyone attempting to violate these laws will be held accountable and prosecuted," said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh.

"It is unlawful to threaten, intimidate, or coerce District residents who choose to vote by mail or in-person. Now more than ever, we urge District residents to be vigilant and report any type of unauthorized poll monitoring or voter intimidation," said D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine.

Early voting is currently underway in Virginia and will wrap up on Oct. 31. In Maryland, early voting kicks off on Monday, Oct. 26, and it starts the next day in D.C.

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