Trump's 'rigged election' claim resonates with some GOP poll workers in Philly

Voting Machines
A technician prepares voting machines to be used in the presidential election in Philadelphia.

Donald Trump's call for his campaign supporters to visit big cities to observe polling places on Election Day lit a new fire under an old smoldering controversy about voter fraud in Philadelphia.

Trump and his campaign surrogates have followed up with rope-a-dope rhetoric, usually when pressed for evidence of past voter fraud.

At times, Trump says his claims about a "rigged election" are really a complaint about a biased national media supporting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But then he repeatedly insists fraud will impact the election, as he did on Tuesday during a rally in Colorado.

"Take a look at Philadelphia, what's going on," Trump told supporters. "Take a look at Chicago. Take a look at St. Louis. Take a look at some of these cities where you see things happening that are horrendous."

It is a message he has been sending for weeks.

"It is so important that you get out and watch other communities," Trump told supporters at an Oct. 10 rally in Ambridge in Western Pennsylvania. "Because we don't want this election stolen from us."

Watching this all are the Democrats and Republicans who run elections in Philadelphia - from the City Commissioners who oversee operations to the polling place workers and poll watchers who spend the day with voters.

Democratic officials, with a party that dominates Philadelphia with a 7-1 voter registration advantage, say Trump can't back up his claims with evidence.

Al Schmidt, the lone Republican on the three-member City Commissioners, last week said Trump's claims are the real threat to the election.

But Republican poll workers, who struggle for manpower to cover the city's 1,686 voting divisions across the city, express deep suspicions about fraud in past elections. For some, those suspicions are driven by sporadic Democratic bullying at polling places.

One thing is missing in the voter fraud debate - convincing evidence that it is a widespread problem, as some people claim.

That claim is typically made about in-person voter fraud, where someone impersonates a voter to cast a ballot or votes multiple times.

The most notorious voting fraud in recent Philadelphia history involved a different approach, bogus absentee ballots in a 1993 state Senate race. A federal judge threw out all the absentee ballots in that race, ruling that election officials had illegally given them to campaign and party workers to fill out for voters. The Democratic candidate who won that race with 79 percent of the absentee vote was later removed from office.

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Nine people have been prosecuted for voter fraud in Philadelphia since 2013.

Democratic officials call that proof that the system works. Some Republicans counter that it is only proof of how much Democrats get away with when it comes to voter fraud.

Seth Kaufer, Republican leader in the 2nd Ward, said he routinely faces Election Day disputes with Democratic poll workers in five of his ward's 27 divisions. That increases, he said, each time a new Republican poll worker is added to a division.

"When we [add new poll workers] there is so much push-back from the Democrats," Kaufer said. "They are so defensive about who is going to be on that table."

It is a common complaint among Republican poll workers in the city.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee in Philadelphia, flatly denies that his party's poll workers prevent duly elected or appointed Republicans from doing their election day jobs.

"Ninety-nine times out of 100 they don't show up," Brady said of the Republican poll workers. "If they don't show up, we're allowed to curbside it."

In a "curbside election," the Democratic poll workers can vote to replace a missing Republican poll worker with a fellow Democrat.

Voters in each division sign in at a table overseen by a judge of elections, majority and minority inspectors and clerks. The people in those positions are elected every four years or are appointed by a judge when there is a vacancy.

Kaufer has also worked as a poll watcher, who are appointed by candidates or political parties.

He said he has had to call the District Attorney's Office to complain about Democratic bullying at the start of past Election Days when Republican poll workers have showed up and been shooed away.

Kaufer says the Democrats are motivated in part by the desire to have their party control the polling place and in part by the $95 paid to inspectors and clerks for the day.

The alleged push-back on Republican election workers gives rise to suspicions about what goes on when they are denied access.

Asked if he has seen actual voter fraud, Kaufer said a Democratic poll worker in his ward cast a ballot for a Republican friend in the April 26 primary election. He took pictures of the signature the poll worker forged for her friend and reported the incident to the District Attorney's Office.

That poll worker was arrested in September. A judge is expected to approve, in a Nov. 17 hearing, a sentence that would allow the poll worker to serve a term of probation and then have her record cleared if she stays out of trouble.Kaufer, a GOP delegate who voted to nominate Trump at the Republican National Convention, likes his party's nominee calling for people from outside the city to come here to observe voting.

But the Pennsylvania Election Code says poll watchers, who are allowed to enter polling places, must be registered to vote in the county where they serve.

"We'd love to have more volunteers in Philadelphia," Kaufer said. "We'll have poll watchers inside. They don't need to be poll watchers inside."

Joseph Wise, a minority inspector in the 59th Ward, has a different take.

Wise said Trump supporters from other counties should attempt to enter Philadelphia polling places on Election Day. Trump hasn't gone that far in his call to supporters.

"They know they're supposed to stay outside," Wise said of Trump's out-of-town supporters. "But they're going to come in like they might vote."

Wise acknowledged that would be breaking a state law. But he said many poll workers don't bother to enforce the regulation that requires everyone but poll workers, poll watchers and voters to stay at least 10 feet from the entrance of a polling place.

Wise, who said he has seen many instances of people in polling places directing others how to vote, sees a balance in having Trump supporters try to infiltrate the process.

"I hope they do come in," Wise said. "Philadelphia's polls have a whole lot of stuff wrong with them."

Still, Wise said he is a vigilant inspector and never hesitates to call attention to potential problems. His most common complaint is electioneering in the polling place, when a poll workers or someone else tells a voter which candidate to support.

Wise also acknowledged he has never needed to call the District Attorney's Office to report a case of voter fraud.

Rochelle Porto kept copious notes - nearly 6,000 words - of her time as a Republican Party poll watcher in Fairhill during the 2012 general election.

It is a litany of lawyers squabbling about access to polling places, "union thugs" trying to intimidate people, disputes on who was allowed to be working as inspectors and clerks.

The hostility in Porto's notes reaches a crescendo when a majority inspector in the 37th Ward calls her a "bitch" and then sticks her tongue out at her.

The notes include suspicions about voter fraud - amid the chaos of polling place in a public school gym crowded with people she says should not be there - but no proof.

"It was just a hot mess," Porto said last week. "People have to go out and vote. But it's so rigged. There were five different polling divisions in this gym. Totally unmanageable."

Porto won't be watching the polls in Philadelphia during the Nov. 8 general election. She recently moved to Bensalem and so is ineligible to be a poll watcher in the city. But she thinks Trump supporters should show up.

"They could stand outside and just watch who is coming in," Porto said. "They could be looking for those vans who are busing people in. I've been told that happens."

Joe DeFelice, chairman of the Republican City Committee in Philadelphia, said he has heard the same rumors about voters being bused around to different polling places to cast ballots.

"I've never seen it substantiated," he said.


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