Pennsylvania Democrats Lose Ruling Over Trump Poll Watchers

  • Lawsuit one of several filed by Democrats in swing states
  • Federal judge rejects claims of voter-intimidation operation

A federal judge rejected arguments that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his political adviser Roger Stone are rallying supporters to intimidate minority voters on Election Day by acting as vigilante poll monitors and “ballot integrity” volunteers.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond in Philadelphia, on the eve of the general election, is a setback for Democrats who had sought a court order barring aggressive polling-place activity such as invasions of physical space, aggressive questioning and veiled or actual threats of physical violence that they claim could chill the turnout for Clinton.

The Democrats’ “belated, inflammatory allegations appear intended to generate only heat,” and don’t support claims that the Trump campaign threatened voting rights, Diamond said in a 16-page ruling.

With Trump trailing in most polls, Pennsylvania is a battleground state in Tuesday’s election. A Trump win in the state, with its 20 electoral votes, would make the Republican Party nominee’s path easier toward the 270 electoral votes needed to secure the election. A win there by the Democratic Party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton, would likely seal the election for her.

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party sued on Oct. 30 alleging voter-suppression operations are underway to target African Americans and other groups of voters, particularly in cities like Philadelphia. Similar lawsuits have been filed against Trump, the Republican Party’s nominee for president, and Stone in Nevada, Arizona and Michigan as Democrats and Republicans scramble to get more of their voters to the polls by Tuesday. 

In Ohio, a federal judge on Friday barred Trump and Stone’s Stop the Steal group from engaging in Election Day voter intimidation, a ruling that was later blocked by a federal appeals court. Federal judges in Nevada and Arizona denied similar requests to issue orders barring such activity targeting minority voters, who traditionally support Democrats.

A federal judge in New Jersey on Saturday ruled there was no evidence the Republican National Committee was engaged in efforts to intimidate voters.

During a hearing on Monday in Philadelphia, a former city councilman and a pastor of a historically black church testified that comments made by Trump singling out the city as a place to watch for fraud could scare off some potential voters. Trump, in his rallies across Pennsylvania, has said the only way he could lose the state is if there is cheating.

“When he says cheaters he means Latinos and blacks,” former Philadelphia councilman Angel Ortiz testified. “That’s how I get it.”

Ortiz said Trump’s comments could have a ripple effect, deterring minority voters.

“People who look like me, they’ll be asked for papers or citizenship or where they’re from,” he said.

The Pennsylvania GOP, Trump and Stone have all denied any voter-suppression efforts are underway. Diamond sounded skeptical of the Democratic claims, asking lawyers for evidence of voter intimidation in the district. Michael Gottlieb, an attorney for the Democratic Party, cited a statement by a white nationalist group, to which Diamond responded, “That’s your proof, that a lunatic right-wing group has made lunatic statements?”

Diamond’s ruling follows a loss by the Pennsylvania GOP to overturn a provision of the state’s election law requiring poll watchers to be registered to vote in the county they serve. Republicans had argued it was unconstitutional to bar poll watchers from traveling to cities including Philadelphia to watch for voter fraud.

U.S. District Judge Gerald Pappert rejected the request on Nov. 3, ruling there’s “good reason” to avoid last-minute intervention in the state’s electoral process and the Election Code’s 79-year history.

The case is Pennsylvania Democratic Party v. Republican Party of Pennsylvania, 16-5664, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia).

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