Philadelphia officials are planning the largest Election Fraud Task Force ever in order to monitor polling places amid Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric about voter fraud and intimidation, in addition to anticipated high voter turnout in the city, Billy Penn has learned.
Peter Berson, an assistant district attorney who heads up the city’s Election Fraud Task Force, said the D.A.’s office always increases the amount of personnel it utilizes on Election Day during presidential years. But more personnel than ever before will be used this year, and District Attorney Seth Williams has ensured that every assistant district attorney and detective who is not required to be in court on Election Day will be available to work with officials on monitoring voting in the city.
The complement of personnel includes more than 60 people (compared to 10 or 15 during municipal election years) who can be dispatched to polling places across the city, Berson said. They’ll respond if complaints are filed about possible voter fraud, concerns about intimidation at the polls, disputes between election board officials and more. Some of that personnel will be assigned to certain areas of the city, but Berson said that hasn’t yet been finalized.
“This is a highly-contested election, so we’ve upped our assignments,” Berson said. “I would not say it’s 100 percent because of the back-and-forth between the Clinton and Trump campaigns. We’re not ignoring it, but we also know in any presidential campaign, there’s going to be a higher turnout and we need more bodies.”
The plan comes as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for his supporters to monitor polling places as part of his now-widespread theory that the election has been rigged against him. The presidential candidate has not committed to accepting the results of the election if he loses.
The Guardian reported Thursday that a grassroots group supporting Trump is planning to conduct “exit polls” on Election Day in Democrat-leaning cities with large minority populations, including Philadelphia. “Citizens for Trump” has, according to The Guardian, gathered up some 1,300 volunteers who are targeting 600 polling places in nine cities, all of which fall in swing states. The effort was reportedly organized by Roger Stone, a close Trump ally who coincidentally has ties to our area.
Tricia Cunningham, the Pennsylvania state operations director for Citizens for Trump — whose outgoing voicemail urges callers to “have a Trumptastic day” — said she wasn’t sure about details regarding exit polling in Philadelphia. Her focus is on recruiting poll watchers and certified poll workers in western Pennsylvania. A Philadelphia representative for the group could not be reached.
The exit polling could be a way to get Trump supporters near polling places without actually being inside. Trump has implied while on the stump, especially in Pennsylvania, that his supporters should go to polling places to ensure voter fraud isn’t happening.
“Watch other communities,” Trump told PA supporters earlier this month, “because we don’t want this election stolen from us.”
But in Pennsylvania, certified poll watchers representing parties and campaigns must be from the county where they’re registered to vote. If anyone were planning widespread official poll-watching in Philadelphia that’s different than normal presidential election years, it would be the Philadelphia GOP.
Joe DeFelice, the executive director of the Philadelphia GOP, has said he doesn’t have any such plans and hadn’t heard about Citizens for Trump planning exit polling in the city other than what was reported by The Guardian.
Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt said groups routinely conduct exit polls. Issues with exit polls taking place outside a polling place would largely be referred to the district attorney, while City Commissioners focus more on problems that may arise in the polling places.
Berson said task force personnel will field concerns and complaints on Election Day and either refer them to the right authority or dispatch an assistant district attorney to the polling place in question. Once there, Berson said the ADA will work to handle the situation outside the polling place as much as possible as to not interfere with the continuing voting process. If the dispute is regarding a specific voter, in most cases that voter can cast a provisional ballot that would later be reviewed by officials.
Some matters, like if blood were shed after an altercation in a polling place — that’s not common at all — would be referred to Philadelphia Police.
Berson said the Election Fraud Task Force isn’t “some sort of a new program that we’re putting in place for this election,” but has been used since Ed Rendell was the district attorney. Berson has been heading up the unit for 16 years and worked on it for a decade before that.
“[Elections] can be very highly-contested,” he said. “In this situation, you can’t ignore what’s going on.”
Since the summer, Trump and some of his surrogates have peddled debunked claims about the 2012 Philadelphia election. They’ve continually brought up the fact that GOP nominee Mitt Romney received exactly zero votes in 59 voting divisions in Philadelphia four years ago, but experts say that outcome is entirely possible, and even makes sense based on voter registration trends in the city.