ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Donald Trump has questioned for weeks whether the election in November will be rigged. The Republican presidential candidate is also falling in the polls, and now he has raised his charges to a new level. Trump is calling on supporters and law enforcement to watch the polls for signs of fraud. And as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, there is a thin line between observing the vote and intimidating voters.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Speaking to a crowd in Altoona, Pa., on Friday night, Trump said the only way he could lose in this state is if there's cheating at the polls.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD TRUMP: And we're going to watch Pennsylvania very quickly. We're going to watch Pennsylvania go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don't come in and vote five times.
FESSLER: And then he said this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: And we have to call up law enforcement, and we have to have the sheriffs and the police chiefs and everybody watching.
FESSLER: That comment raised concerns that he might be encouraging voter intimidation.
DAVID BECKER: Of course there's no bright line. It'd be a lot easier if there were.
FESSLER: David Becker is an election expert who monitored thousands of polling sites as an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department in the early 2000s. He says there are guidelines for who can and can't observe elections and what they're allowed to do. But it's not always cut and dried.
BECKER: It can be that having a police officer in a very non-obtrusive way at a polling place really does help people feel safer and is not intimidating at all. And it could be that having someone with a firearm at a polling place, especially close to the entry point, could be seen as intimidating.
FESSLER: Which is what some people thought in 2008 when two members of the New Black Panther Party, one with a billy club, were stationed outside a polling site in Philadelphia, although charges in that case were eventually dropped.
Becker says election officials have to take into account everything going on at a polling site to know if something has or hasn't crossed the line, and most states routinely allow representatives of political parties, campaigns and the general public inside the voting place. But there are rules.
BECKER: One of the biggest rules about observing elections is that you actually just are there to observe.
FESSLER: Not to interfere. If a poll watcher sees something untoward, they're not supposed to approach the voter but report the problem to an election official. Trump's spokesman, Jason Miller, told NPR that concerns the Republican candidate is calling on his supporters to intimidate voters are unfounded. He notes that poll watching is standard for campaigns and says their goal is to ensure an open, fair and honest election.
Still, election officials are disturbed by the implication that cheating and fraud are widespread. Tammy Patrick is a former Arizona election official now with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
TAMMY PATRICK: There's a frustration within the election administration community because many of the claims that are circulating both in social media and just in general are not realistic.
FESSLER: Most election experts dismiss Trump's claims that people can vote five, 10 or 15 times at the polls. Not only is it almost impossible to do. There are very few proven cases of in-person voter fraud.
Still, both parties are always on the lookout for any irregularities. The Democrats and Republicans as well as outside interest groups routinely have hundreds of lawyers and volunteers lined up on Election Day to make sure everything goes smoothly. Both Becker and Patrick think all the scrutiny is a good thing.
BECKER: When done responsibly, poll monitoring can be a great benefit.
FESSLER: Patrick says it helps election officials spot problems so they can be fixed, and the fewer problems, the more confidence voters have that the election was fair. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.