Pennsylvania bill would allow out-of-county poll watchers to confront elections officials

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The bill, sponsored by Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, could lead to more voter intimidation.

The Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill Monday that would empower poll watchers across the state.

The bill, S.B. 573, is sponsored by Republican gubernatorial nominee state Sen. Doug Mastriano. It would increase the fines and criminal penalties for interfering with a poll watcher, mandate that poll watchers be able to stand "six feet or less" from election officials performing their duties, allow poll watchers inside the polling place to observe ballot counting, increase the number of poll watchers each candidate may appoint per precinct, and remove the county residency requirement for poll watchers.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania previously urged lawmakers to vote against an earlier version of the bill, which they said "needlessly invites opportunities for confrontation, unfounded challenges to voters' eligibility by out-of-county watchers, and, in some cases, an increased risk of voter intimidation."

The Pennsylvania bill is part of a broader national effort. In the wake of their failed attempt to overturn the 2020 election, Republican activists and operatives have identified poll watchers as a way to challenge the legitimacy of future elections.

In May, the New York Times reported that Cleta Mitchell, a prominent election-denying Republican lawyer deeply involved in the attempt to subvert the 2020 vote, is working with a network of groups, including the Republican National Committee, to recruit and train partisan poll watchers.

The bill is unlikely to become law. Elizabeth Rementer, press secretary for Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said the governor strongly opposes the bill and condemned it as an attempt to "encourage voter intimidation."

While Mastriano trumpeted the bill as "the key to rebuilding trust in our election system," Harrisburg Democrats disagreed. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, a Democrat, said the legislation "implies that there's fraud or something going on with election workers."

President Joe Biden narrowly won the Keystone State in 2020, flipping a state that former President Donald Trump had won in 2016. After the election, Mastriano called for "a thorough, transparent and independent audit of the Pennsylvania general election to prevent further damage to the integrity of our election."

Mastriano then led state Republicans' efforts to overturn Joe Biden's victory in Pennsylvania, spreading conspiracy theories that the election was stolen and introducing legislation modeled off an unconstitutional Conservative legal theory that would have allowed the Republican-controlled state legislature to overrule the popular vote and give the state's electoral votes to Trump.

Mastriano's commitment to Trump's election lies ultimately took him to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, where he was a scheduled speaker at the "Stop the Steal" rally preceding the insurrection, and spent more than $4,000 of campaign money busing his supporters to Washington on the day of the rally. Photos and video show Mastriano near police barricades after they were breached by insurrectionists that day. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has interviewed Mastriano about his activities, and he was issued a subpoena by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The vote in favor of Mastriano's bill follows his victory in the Republican gubernatorial primary and invitation to rejoin his party's closed-door caucus meetings. He had previously been banned from those meetings, where lawmakers discuss policy and legislative strategy in private, after a public feud with Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, also a Republican, over how extensively the state Senate should investigate the 2020 election.

Corman ran against Mastriano in the primary but suspended his campaign to endorse former Rep. Lou Barletta in an attempt by the state party establishment to defeat Mastriano. Ahead of the primary, Republican operatives quoted anonymously by the New York Times described a Mastriano general election campaign as a "suicide mission" and compared it to the doomed "voyage of the Titanic."

Since Mastriano's victory, however, the state party has begun to coalesce around him. It remains to be seen just how far the party and its most powerful donors will go to support a candidate that many insiders consider too extreme to win the general election.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.