The Trump campaign and its attorneys have moved swiftly to file suit in Pennsylvania. The lawsuit seeks to stop the counting of votes until the Trump campaign is permitted to exercise its legal right to have poll watchers present and able to observe proceedings from a meaningful distance.
There had been multiple reports of Republican poll watchers in Pennsylvania being denied any access to the polls on election day, or in other cases being “permitted” to watch but only at such a great distance that it was impossible to observe what was happening.
One might reasonably ask, why is it so important to watch? Is it likely to make a difference?
The answer is yes. Especially in Pennsylvania.
Poll watchers at the vote-counting stage serve an extremely important purpose: they keep the election officials honest. Making sure that the signatures on the absentee ballot envelopes match, ensuring that the same rules are applied to Democrats as are applied to Republicans, and generally holding the vote counters’ feet to the fire.
To be sure, corruption by election officials is rare—extremely rare. When I was Kansas Secretary of State, reports (much less, convictions) of fraud by election officials were almost nonexistent. The overwhelming majority of people who work to administer elections are scrupulously fair. Not just in Kansas, but in the vast majority of states.
But in Pennsylvania, specifically in Philadelphia, it’s a different story.
Philadelphia has a history not only of reports of election officials violating the law, it also has a history of convictions of election officials for violating the law. In 2015, three election officials— Laura Murtagh, Robin Trainor and Cheryl Ali—were charged with a variety of election crimes, including voting multiple times and in the name of other people, election forgery, conspiracy, and fraud by election officers. The crimes occurred during the 2014 and 2015 primary elections in Philadelphia. All three pled guilty of the lesser election crimes and were convicted.
In 2017, four Philadelphia election officials—Delores Shaw, Calvin Mattox, Thurman George, and Wallace Hill—engaged in a conspiracy to ensure the election of a write-in candidate in a special election for the statehouse seat for the 197th District. They were charged with intimidating voters unwilling to vote for the Democratic candidate, casting bogus ballots, and falsely certifying results. All four were convicted of various election crimes.
That’s seven election officials convicted of crimes in a three-year period. It’s extraordinary. And it’s probably not an exhaustive list of all of the officials in Philadelphia who committed election crimes—because many are never caught. Remember, in any other state, it would be a rare thing for a single election official to be convicted of an election crime.
If there is any jurisdiction in the country in which Republicans have a strong reason to watch the vote-counters, it’s Philadelphia. Not to mention the fact that it is their legal right to do so and a sound practice in any jurisdiction. So when Philadelphia-area election officials exclude Republicans from observing what’s going on, that should sound the alarm bells.
As the apocryphal quote attributed to Joseph Stalin goes: “It’s not the people who vote that count; it’s the people who count the votes.” In Philadelphia, it’s both. Republicans are absolutely correct to seek a judicial order pausing the vote counting until poll watchers—for both sides—are allowed to observe.
Kris W. Kobach is an expert in immigration law and election fraud. He was a professor of constitutional law during 1996-2011 at the University of Missouri-KC. He was the Secretary of State of Kansas during 2011-2019. He authored and defended in court the Kansas law that introduced photo-ID and proof-of-citizenship requirements for voting.