Pa. Republicans want poll watcher expansion

David Weissman
  • House Bill 29 proposes to allow any registered voter in PA to serve as poll watcher in any district.
  • Current election code requires poll watchers to be from county where they are serving.
  • Gov. Wolf, others allege the expansion might lead to voter intimidation.

With less than a month until Election Day, Republicans are continuing a fight in Pennsylvania to amend poll watcher legislation.

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State Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny and Washington counties, is the primary sponsor of House Bill 29, which would allow a candidate to appoint any registered voter in the state to serve as a poll watcher in any election district.

Current election code only allows candidates to appoint poll watchers for a district in the county in which they reside. For example, a York County voter could not serve as a poll watcher in Adams County under current law.

Poll watchers a regular occurrence in York County

Saccone, who represents a district serving two counties, said this has presented an issue at times in his efforts to recruit poll watchers, who voluntarily observe election activities from within polling places.

"It's an unnecessary restriction," he said of the current law. "My brother, who lives in Allegheny (County), can't watch a poll for me in Washington (County) even though it's just a mile down the road."

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made largely unfounded allegations of voter fraud in Pennsylvania, saying the only way he could lose the Keystone State is if cheating occurs.

He first made the claim at an August rally in Altoona, after which he began recruiting volunteers to watch polls in "certain places," stoking fears of voter intimidation among Democrats.

Bill: Saccone's bill, which currently has 10 co-sponsors (including one Democrat), was originally proposed in December 2014. It was voted out of the House State Government committee in early 2015 but now sits in the House Appropriations committee with only six days left in session before the election.

Saccone says he doesn't know why his "no-brainer" bill hasn't been passed. It was originally written to be imposed after 60 days, as is typical for legislation amendments, but the language now calls for an immediate implementation, which Saccone said was to ensure its use during the coming general election.

The bill was brought up at a recent public hearing by the House State Government committee on elections.

Saccone serves on the committee, and its chairman, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

L. Edward Allison Jr., director of Lawrence County Registration and Elections, said at the hearing that introducing a new variable so close to the election could create an issue, according to a transcript of the proceedings.

Susan Carty, president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, echoed that sentiment, saying the bill's passage at this point would "throw a wrench in the election administration process," according to the transcript.

FILE - Gov. Tom Wolf makes an appearance at Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine's campaign stop in Lancaster Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016. Amanda J. Cain photo

Joe DeFelice, chairman of the Republican City Committee of Philadelphia, commented during the hearing that he has trouble recruiting volunteers in the city, where Democrats hold a large majority, and expanding the pool would make it easier to get "eyes and ears" at the polls.

Voter intimidation: Several people, including Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia County, commented during the hearing about the potential voter intimidation such a bill could bring to the polls.

Gov. Tom Wolf opposes the bill because he believes it will lead to voter intimidation, according to spokesman Jeff Sheridan.

"Through existing law, there are already stringent controls in place to ensure the integrity of elections in Pennsylvania," Sheridan wrote in an email.

York City Council President Carol Hill-Evans, the Democratic nominee for state representative in the 95th District, agreed that the current law is sufficient.

"(Poll watchers) should come from the county," she said. "I think it encourages people to get involved locally."

Saccone called the voter intimidation claim "nonsense."

"If anything, it reduces the threat of voter intimidation," he said. "(Poll watchers) can't interact with voters. There's no additional training required. It just makes it easier to recruit volunteers."

Locally: Alex Shorb, chairman of the York County Republican Committee, said his organization does offer nonmandatory training to poll watchers.

Shorb said he supports Saccone's bill but added that the more time they could have to adjust, the better.

Alex Shorb

He added that his party wouldn't need any noncounty residents to serve as poll watchers in York County because they can adequately staff polling locations here.

Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, said York County's election board does such a good job that she's never felt the need to appoint poll watchers.

Phillips-Hill, who  serves on the House State Government committee, said she appreciates legislators' concerns because it's important that citizens have trust in the voting system.

State Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township

Tom Herman, president of Service Employees International Union Local 668, said that the system we have now works, and there's no need to change it.

"If there was fraud, (former) Gov. (Tom) Corbett would've done something about it," Herman said. "This is simply another method for Republican tea party candidates to try to intimidate voters."

— Reach David Weissman at or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.