Court Rules that PA Poll Watchers Must Be from County
Pennsylvania law requires that poll watchers be registered to vote in the county in which they serve as poll watchers. The Republican Party of Pennsylvania challenged this rule, and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the law was valid, in part because the challenge was brought too close to the election but also finding (internal citations omitted):
Plaintiffs correctly note that “a free and fair election requires ballot security.” While this statement is uncontroversial, the Plaintiffs’ preoccupation with the role of poll watchers to deter purported voter fraud disregards other aspects of the regulatory framework the Commonwealth designed to ensure ballot integrity and thus prevent vote dilution. Plaintiffs’ concerns over potential voter fraud—whether perpetrated by putative electors or poll workers themselves—appear more effectively addressed by election overseers than poll watchers, to take just one example. The overseers have greater authority to question voters, and may be within the closed space in which ballots are counted and machines are canvassed, while poll watchers can do neither of those things. . . .
Voting is a fundamental right. States’ regulations on the times, places and manner of elections must therefore comport with equal protection and all other constitutional requirements. States retain considerable discretion to regulate elections, however. After all, the state “must play an active role in structuring elections . . . if they are to be fair and honest and if some sort of order, rather than chaos, is to accompany the democratic process.” Every regulation on elections will “invariably impose some burden upon individual voters.” . . .
Plaintiffs have not shown that Section 2687(b) burdens their fundamental right to vote or in any way limits their range of choices in the voting booth. The individual voters who bring this case along with the Republican Party are not hindered in their exercise of the franchise: unlike the plaintiff in Burdick, where the State of Hawaii banned write-in voting, Plaintiffs here may cast ballots for whomever they wish; they are also free to serve as poll watchers in the counties in which they are qualified electors if appointed by the party or a candidate. Indeed the Plaintiffs acknowledge that there is no individual constitutional right to serve as a poll watcher, but rather the right is conferred by statute. Under that statutory right, an individual may serve as a poll watcher only if appointed to do so by a candidate or the party—unaffiliated individuals with concerns over ballot integrity are not authorized to monitor the polls uninvited. The Republican Party is similarly unable to demonstrate a burden on its rights to equal protection and due process—it points to no polling place that Section 2687(b) prevents it from staffing with poll watchers.
The merits of the poll watcher residency rule at issue aside, the court here has upheld two important principles. 1. Courts should not change the rules under which an election is conducted close to the election (the Purcell principle), and 2. legislatures rightfully control the administration of elections in most instances, not the courts.
View the entire Memorandum denying the request for a preliminary injunction here.