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Politics & Government

Wisconsin Welcomes Poll Watchers, But They Must Follow Strict Rules


If you head to the polls Tuesday, don't just expect to see voters and election workers. Observers of all stripes also could be there, keeping an eye on the goings-on.

For months, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has been urging supporters to head to the polls to combat what he alleges is election-rigging. He renewed his claim recently at a rally in Green Bay.

"They say there's nothing going on (but) people that have died 10 years ago are still voting. Illegal immigrants are voting," Trump said.

In Madison last week, Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine offered this retort: "Hey, if you think that poorly of the United States and the voters and people who run an election, why are you running to be president?"

It's not clear how many observers from the Trump or Clinton camps might observe at state election sites on Tuesday. We contacted the campaigns but no one responded. Yet Neil Albrecht of the Milwaukee Election Commission is certain poll watchers from a number of groups will be out and about. So sure, that he outfitted all polling places with necessary supplies.

"We give them green froggy tape to mark on the floor, so that helps them establish their observer areas on Election Day," Albrecht says.

Albrecht says poll watchers can get no closer than three feet to the action.

"They're not allowed to interact with the poll worker, because we don't want to distract our poll workers. But they're also not allowed to interact with the public," Albrecht says.

Albrecht says observers cannot look over voters' shoulders as they fill out ballots. Nor can the watchers take photos. And he says, the observers cannot try to influence someone's vote.

"You can't do what's called electioneering, which is wear any garment of clothing or distribute any literature," Albrecht says.

Albrecht says if voters or poll workers see an observer violating the rules, they should take it up with the polling place supervisor. That person can order observers to change their behavior or leave the premises. If the poll watchers are concerned about things they see, they also must speak to the site supervisor.

Reid Magney works for the Wisconsin Elections Commission. He says typically, both voter advocacy groups -- and those concerned about voter fraud -- send observers to the polls. So do the political parties, as part of their "get out the vote" efforts.

"Sometimes they'll have a volunteer there with a list of people who they think are their supporters, and when John Smith comes in, they'll mark him off and they'll know that John Smith has voted. But then if they don't see Steve Jones by later in the day, they'll know, you know, 'maybe we need to call him and offer him a ride to the polls,'" Magney says.

As if having so many citizen observers in polling places wasn't enough, staff from the U.S. Attorney's office and state Department of Justice also will be roving. They will watch goings-on, and talk to the site supervisor if they're concerned about what they see.

"If history is any guide, I think there will be very few issues with observers," says Roy Korte, an assistant attorney general with the state justice department. He's been monitoring polling places for years.

"Local election officials are very familiar with what the dos and don'ts are, what's allowed, what's not, and usually a lot of stuff can be resolved very informally by just pointing out those rules and whatnot to the observers," Korte says.

Korte adds that state elections officials have been educating groups that dispatch poll watchers, to increase their compliance with the rules.

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