WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump regularly warns his crowds to closely watch polling places to prevent Democrats from stealing the election. But his campaign has failed to enlist many to serve as official poll watchers in major population centers, according to spot checks by The Associated Press.
In some key regions, Democratic monitors will far outnumber Republicans on Election Day.
The Trump team seeks volunteers on his website to “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election.” But it’s unclear what the campaign does with its list — voters in Arizona and Virginia who signed up were never contacted.
While specific rules vary from state to state, poll watchers generally are registered voters appointed by the campaigns to sit in polling places and observe. They can point out potential problems to election officials and, in some states, challenge whether a voter is actually eligible. But they cannot campaign for their candidates or confront voters themselves.
In many of the largest cities in battleground states, Democratic poll watchers are set to substantially outnumber Republicans. Even in Philadelphia, a place Trump has singled out as being at high risk of vote fraud, there has been no surge in Trump poll watchers. The city had a total of 4,200 signups as of last week — only about 480 of them from the city’s 119,000 Republicans.
“I’m handling everything, and I would say this is about average,” said Joseph DeFelice, the head of Philadelphia’s Republican Party. DeFelice said he is concerned about how Republicans are treated on Election Day in some overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhoods, but said he isn’t worried by the absence of more observers.
When roughly 1,500 Republican poll watchers volunteered for the 2004 election, “that was way too many,” he said. “The Democrats will have three to four times the number of poll watchers that we do.”
It’s not clear why there is a discrepancy between Trump’s rhetoric urging poll watchers and the lack of signups: whether it was a failure by the campaign to organize or if it was never truly a true campaign priority.
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests by The Associated Press by phone and email to discuss the issue.
In Pennsylvania and some other battleground states, poll watchers can still be registered. But in hotly contested Florida, it’s already too late: the registration period ended Oct. 25.
In Miami-Dade County — containing 999 precincts and more than 10 percent of Florida’s voters — Trump’s campaign has registered only 150 poll watchers, compared to the Clinton campaign’s 903. The local Republican Party registered 88 more — but even including those, Democratic poll watchers in Miami-Dade will outnumber Republicans nearly four to one.
In other counties, Trump’s poll watchers are more evenly matched or even outnumber Clinton’s. But after surveying election officials in Florida’s 10 most populous counties, the AP found that Clinton’s people far outnumber Trump’s. Local Republican committees helped narrow the gap but did not close it.
Trends are difficult to interpret among Florida counties that provide historical data. In Duval County, which Mitt Romney carried with 51 percent, Romney’s 277 election observers in 2012 have shrunk to just 60 for Trump. In Orange County, which Obama won with 59 percent of the vote, 20 poll watchers registered for Mitt Romney in 2012 have exploded into 294 for Trump.
Carolyn Bourland, a retired teacher in Orlando, said Trump’s campaign encouraged her to become seriously involved in an election for the first time of her life.
“It’s like being an investigator. You have your eyes and ears,” she said. She said she was worried about genuine attempts to rig the election. “It’s shocking how much of this stuff is going on,” she said. But she said she was clear on the limitations of her role.
“You’re not allowed to campaign for any candidate, and if you see something suspicious, you go to the person in charge,” she said.
In some of Ohio’s biggest population centers, Republicans have preserved their options to send in election observers. In both Cuyahoga and Franklin counties, which Obama won with 69 percent and 60 percent, respectively, local Republican officials have submitted tentative paperwork to have a poll watcher in each of the counties’ roughly 825 precincts.
But Franklin County GOP Central Committee Chairman Brad Sinnott said he expected few, if any, of those slots would be filled.
“That would be pointless,” said Sinnott, who also sits on the Franklin County Board of Elections. Under Ohio’s bipartisan election administration system, Republicans and Democrats both share oversight of elections, rendering serious concern about improprieties moot, he said.
At the Trump campaign’s request, Sinnott said the local party has reserved spots for observers. If people want to fill them, actual election workers will provide them with a chair, if available, and “normal human courtesy,” Sinnott said.
But Sinnott doesn’t expect either Democrats or Republicans to turn out in force for election monitoring. They’ll have better things to do Nov. 8.
“Our local parties will be trying to influence election behavior,” he said. “Not watching others vote.”