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Trump Urged His Supporters To 'Go Into The Polls And Watch.' But Iowa Has Strict Laws Governing Poll Watchers.

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Des Moines International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Alex Brandon
President Donald Trump urged his supporters to "go into the polls and watch very carefully," but Iowa has strict laws for who can be at voting sites.

At the presidential debate in late September, President Donald Trump called on his supporters to “watch” voting locations, raising concerns about possible voter intimidation.

“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls, and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” Trump said.

Poll watchers are a standard part of elections in Iowa, but not the way Trump described them. Iowa has strict laws for who is allowed at polling places and for how they can behave.

“We’ve always had poll watchers,” said Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald, a Democrat. “I can’t think of a general election where we haven’t had both Democrat and Republican poll watchers to make sure the process is open and fair.”

Iowa’s laws about poll watchers

In Iowa, poll watchers are appointed by political parties and some candidates’ campaigns. They have to provide written permission that shows who appointed them.

The number of poll watchers at each voting site is capped at three from each political party, and one each from other groups, and they’re not allowed to wear things that indicate what political party or candidate they support. The rules are similar for poll watchers appointed to observe the counting of absentee ballots.

Poll watchers are generally not allowed to interact with voters.

If a poll watcher has reason to believe someone is not qualified to vote, they can fill out an official challenger’s statement and bring their concerns to election officials at the polling place. The election officials then interact with the voter, and they may allow the poll watcher to join in and ask questions about the voter’s age and where the voter lives.

Campaigning within 300 feet of a voting site is also illegal in Iowa, and it’s illegal to interfere with voters approaching a polling place.

Fitzgerald said if Iowans see something that could be voter intimidation or campaigning too close to a polling place, voters should alert election workers or call their county auditor’s office right away.

What are Iowa Republicans and Democrats saying about poll watchers?

While both parties are recruiting poll watchers, several developments have put the spotlight on Republican poll watchers.

Trump’s campaign website urges supporters to “Join President Trump’s Army of Supporters” and “Fight with President Trump.” That language, Trump’s comments about watching the polls, and his baseless claims about widespread voter fraud have raised concerns about in-person voter intimidation, or that the confrontational rhetoric could be enough to scare voters who believe they would be targeted, like some Latino voters in Iowa.

This is also the first presidential election since a federal judge lifted restrictions on the Republican National Committee’s Election Day activities, and the RNC claims it is recruiting 50,000 poll watchers across key battleground states.

Aaron Britt, a spokesperson for the Republican Party of Iowa (RPI), said the “grassroots” effort is meant to promote transparency and trust in the voting system, and to ensure every vote counts.

“We do not condone any sort of intimidation activity,” Britt said. “And I would just say when it comes to terms like, calling it ‘Army for Trump,’ things like that, we just want this to be a group effort. We want them to feel like they’re part of a team, making sure that things go smoothly on Election Day.”

Britt said all poll watchers will go through a training process to learn the laws governing what they can and cannot do at a polling place. According to CNN, poll watcher training videos released by the Trump campaign emphasize following the rules and not being disruptive.

Britt also said the RPI is trying to ensure poll watchers are local residents. Poll watchers may only challenge voters’ qualifications if they are registered voters in the same county.

Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) Executive Director Mike Frosolone said Democrats are putting together a “more robust voter protection team” than in past election years.

“As part of our effort to make sure that no Iowan faces unnecessary barriers at the ballot box, Iowa Democrats are recruiting hundreds of volunteers to be poll observers to monitor the process and help ensure a fair election,” Frosolone said in a statement. “Our voter protection team is also recruiting volunteer observers to be present where votes are counted at Special Precinct Election Boards across the state.”

Frosolone said the IDP has established a “voter assistance hotline” for Iowa voters, and they want ensure everyone can vote safely and securely.

Stacey Walker, a Linn County Supervisor and member of a left-leaning coalition called Democracy Defenders, said he has not seen major voter intimidation efforts in Iowa before, but he has seen groups provide false election information in the past.

Walker said the Democracy Defenders want to ensure Iowans can vote free from intimidation, and they’re asking elected officials to stand up against such efforts.

“There are right wing elements in this country that will stop at nothing to try to impact the results of the election,” Walker said. “And so we are going to be mindful of that, and we’ll be coordinating across the state. If we see anything like that, it will be reported, and we’ll take the necessary actions to make sure every voter has access to their polling place and has the ability to vote.”

Walker said the alleged plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan also raises the specter of unlawful militias getting involved in the election. Militias are illegal in Iowa and every other state.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter