In 2004, hundreds of University of Pittsburgh students waited for hours to vote in the presidential election. The local Democratic Party, alarmed at the bottleneck, handed out pizza and water to encourage the students to stay. Pittsburgh Steelers Hall-of-Famer Franco Harris worked the line, armed with a giant bag of Dunkin Donuts, and Liz Berlin of the Pittsburgh band Rusted Root performed on guitar. The stalled line wasn’t because of the high turnout. It was what was happening at the check-in desk. “The attorneys for the Republican Party were challenging the credentials of pretty much every young voter who showed up,” recalls Pat Clark, a Pittsburgh activist and registered Democrat who was working for an election-protection group that day. The GOP attorneys were acting as poll watchers. A common practice in many states, partisan poll watching helps parties get out the vote and keep an eye out for irregularities. But in Pennsylvania, laws governing how observers can challenge voters are unusually broad, and that makes them susceptible to abuse.
On that day in 2004, students who were challenged by the GOP lawyers were told they needed to find a friend who could sign an affidavit proving their identity and residence. Other battleground states, concerned that their voter-challenge laws could be misused, have limited or even abolished them in the past decade. But Pennsylvania hasn’t modified its rules. That worries election experts, who fear Donald Trump’s persistent calls for supporters to monitor the polls to prevent cheating could create conflicts and chaos inside and outside of precincts across the state.
“I hope you people can … not just vote on the 8th, [but] go around and look and watch other polling places and make sure that it’s 100-percent fine,” Trump said at an August 12 rally in Altoona, in rural central Pennsylvania. “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. … The only way we can lose, in my opinion—and I really mean this, Pennsylvania—is if cheating goes on.”
In a speech 10 days later in Ohio, Trump dropped an ominous hint that he had more in mind than just witnessing democracy in action: “You’ve got to get everybody to go out and watch, and go out and vote,” Trump said. “And when [I] say ‘watch,’ you know what I’m talking about, right?”