Current law lets candidates and parties appoint poll watchers – volunteers who are often party committee members – to election precincts only in those watchers’ respective counties. State guidance allows these appointees to “make good-faith challenges” to an elector’s residence, identity or voting eligibility.
In addition to permitting out-of-county watchers, the “Poll Watcher Empowerment Act” increases the number of observers a primary or general-election candidate may assign to a precinct from two to three. Political parties themselves may each designate three watchers to a precinct. A total of six watchers per precinct could therefore share the same party affiliation.
The legislation also lets representatives of candidates and parties observe absentee ballot pre-canvassing from “a distance of six feet or less.” This component is owed to Republican complaints that they were not permitted to closely observe the canvassing process in Philadelphia in November 2020.
The act increases the possible fine for hindering poll watchers from performing their duties from $1,000 to $5,000 and extends a potential prison sentence for such a violation from one year to two years.
State Senate passage of the measure occurred nearly along party lines, with Republicans voting for it and Democrats opposing it. One Democrat, State Senator Lisa Boscola (D-Bethlehem), nonetheless joined her GOP colleagues in supporting it.
In advancing the bill out of his chamber, State Senator Doug Mastriano (R-Gettysburg) scored his first legislative victory since winning the Republican nomination for governor last month.
“Increasing the number of eligible poll watchers for all political parties and candidates adds another layer of observation and transparency to ensure that election laws are strictly adhered to,” Mastriano told Senate colleagues. “Allowing out-of-county poll watchers ensures that all parties have an equal poll-watcher representation at the polling places throughout our state, particularly in counties where it may be difficult to recruit poll watchers of the same party. Increasing penalties on any election official who blocks, impedes or otherwise intimidates a poll watcher will ensure that poll watchers from all parties and candidates can perform their duties on Election Day.”
His legislation faces good odds in the state House of Representatives which, like the Senate, Republicans control. Getting Gov. Tom Wolf (D) to sign the bill seems unlikely, however, since most Democrats oppose it and Wolf himself criticized similar legislation in 2016.
In remarks against the proposal, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Pittsburgh) insisted that no problem exists in the ballot canvassing process that close observation by poll watchers could solve.
“I trust the people who count these ballots, the people who sit at those tables and make the tallies that they do whenever they do this counting,” he said. “I believe they do it for the right reasons. I don’t think that there’s any fraud in the work that they do. This legislation implies that there’s fraud or something going on with election workers and I don’t agree with that.”
Pennsylvania for America First State Director William Hillman told The Pennsylvania Daily Star he sees the Senate’s action on Mastriano’s bill as a positive but modest step toward secure elections in the Keystone State. A more decisive move in that direction, he said, would be to repeal a provision of a 2019 law that ended the commonwealth’s requirement that voters have an excuse (e.g., illness, disability or travel) in order to vote by mail.
“It’s a good start and I applaud the effort, but more needs to be done,” Hillman said. “For real reform to happen, we need to get rid of no-excuse mail-in ballots.”
Many election-integrity advocates point to broadened use of absentee ballots as a source of election-integrity concerns. A 2005 report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform co-authored by Democratic former President Jimmy Carter and Republican former Secretary of State James A. Baker III stated “absentee ballots remain the largest source of voter fraud.”
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