NBC15 Investigates: Inside the Election Observers

What are “Poll Watchers”? And should you be concerned about voter intimidation?
Published: Oct. 22, 2020 at 10:45 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -As the 2020 election inches closer, President Trump is calling on his supporters to watch for potential issues at polling sites by becoming “Poll Watchers”.

So what are “Poll Watchers”? And should you be concerned about voter intimidation? Some Democrats and political experts say yes.

Poll watching or election observing is nothing new. Trained election observers are often sent to the polls by political parties although anyone can serve as an observer.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission says observers play an important role in the election process but the system only works if the rules are followed.

This year, clerks expect to see more observers than usual.

In Madison, this historic election is bringing people out to the polls who says too much is at stake to sit on the sidelines.

“This is my first election to vote. I know a lot of people that are planning to vote in this election,” said Madison early voter, Mohamad Ismial.

As concerns over public health at the polls grow, so does concern for security in the ballot boxes.

During the first presidential debate in September, President Trump encouraged his supporters to become poll watchers, saying he hopes the election will be fair. “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” the President said.

Experts say the comments raised questions of voter intimidation being a possibility at the polls.

UW-Madison Poltical Science Professor David Canon says this came up when moderator, Chris Wallace asked President Trump to denounce white supremacy.

“He actually gave an answer that ended up not only being perceived as encouraging some of these groups like the Proud Boys to stand by on election day. Right after he said that he encouraged his supporters to go to the polls on elections day and be poll watchers,” said Prof. Canon.

Canon says this causes concern that groups like The Proud Boys could start showing up at the polls on election day and intimidate voters.

Voter intimidation is illegal under federal law.

Reid Magney with the Wisconsin Elections Commission says clerks are working with law enforcement an are aware of potential issues.

“The rhetoric coming from the white house about fraud…asking people to show up to the polling place is definitely concerning,” said Scott McDonell, Dane County Clerk.

Officials agree that election observers give both sides the chance to make sure things are being conducted fairly. Clerks says they know what to look out for in regard to any election interference or intimidation.

Magney says there are rarely issues with election observers in Wisconsin and the times there have been, is when it is someone who has not been properly trained for the role.

“If you’re causing a disruption, you will be asked to leave,” said Magney.

Local voters casting their ballots say they just want to have faith in the system and confidence that their vote county.

“I gather there’s a lot of misinformation out there and it’s important that not only our election is secure but people feel it’s secure,” said MacGregor Wale, early Madison voter.

NBC15 Investigates reached out to both presidential campaigns. The Trump campaign says it has a goal of 50,000 volunteer poll watchers and expects through recruitment it will get more than that.

“Since when is fairness a bad thing? Poll watchers are critical to ensuring the fairness of any election, and President Trump’s volunteer poll watchers will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally, all valid ballots are counted, and all Democrat rule breaking is called out,” said Trump campaign Deputy National Press Secretary, Thea McDonald.

The Biden campaign also recruits observers and says it has invested in making sure the election is as secure as it can be.

“Voting in Wisconsin is convenient and easy. Wisconsinites have numerous ways to cast their ballots this year, and we have made unprecedented investments in a holistic program that will assure voter access to the polls,” said Nate Evans, Wisconsin Communications Director for the Biden campaign.

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