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Republicans want more eyes on election workers. Experts worry about their intent

Normally, more involvement in democracy is a good thing. But officials worry people could be motivated to take their election watcher roles too far.

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Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin casts his ballot early, in September. Youngkin has walked a tight rope on voting issues ahead of Tuesday's election.
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin casts his ballot early, in September. Youngkin has walked a tight rope on voting issues ahead of Tuesday's election. Patrick Semansky | AP

For anyone hoping that voting and elections post-2020 would become less polarized, the recent Take Back Virginia rally outside Richmond was not a good sign.

It opened with those in attendance pledging allegiance to a flag that was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, when rioters stormed the building to stop the official counting of Electoral College votes in the belief that they could prevent Joe Biden from becoming president.

For many of the speakers at the event, election integrity was at the top of their priority list — and not just opposition to ballot drop boxes or voting by mail. Instead, the emphasis was for direct involvement by regular voters and activists to monitor election workers.

The push for more poll watchers is a clear outgrowth of the lies and disinformation spread by former President Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Just a third of Republicans trust U.S. elections are fair, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released on Monday.

"You are responsible for maintaining your election — not me, you!" said rally speaker Mark Finchem, a Republican member of the Arizona Legislature who is also running to be that state's secretary of state. "You need to be at the polls. You cannot leave this to someone else."

Officials in Virginia say there's been an influx of interest in patrolling voting locations this year, especially among Republicans.

A conservative group called the Virginia Project even released a series of videos on how to become an election observer, specifically focusing on how to look for fraud in this November's election.

No evidence of widespread or meaningful cheating in any jurisdiction has come to light in the year since the 2020 election.

"Remember if any of our theories about potential fraud are true, the cheating can happen at every precinct," says Ned Jones, the Virginia Project's election integrity director, in one of the training videos. "Having 100% coverage and eyes on every ballot, we can mitigate the potential for fraud."

Another method of oversight some Republicans are pushing is canvassing, or informally polling a community about how they voted in an effort to sniff out absentee ballot fraud.

"If we have fictitious votes in a county, in a state, you need to canvass and find out are there really people behind that door," Finchem said.

But experts say canvassing can't produce reliable-enough data to actually prove whether there was fraud or not. A post-election canvassing campaign could also be illegal, according to the Justice Department, which warned Arizona lawmakers about similar efforts earlier this year.

"Past experience with similar investigative efforts around the country has raised concerns that they can be directed at minority voters, which potentially can implicate the anti-intimidation prohibitions of the Voting Rights Act," wrote Pamela Karlan, the principal deputy assistant attorney general with the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "Such investigative efforts can have a significant intimidating effect on qualified voters that can deter them from seeking to vote in the future."

Help or hindrance?

Election officials are torn on many of these sorts of efforts.

More involvement and engagement with the democratic process is generally a good thing, said Chris Piper, the commissioner of Virginia's Department of Elections.

"As long as the intention is to truly be part of the democracy and the most sacred right we have as Americans, that's great," Piper said in an interview with NPR. "If the intention is to disrupt, to hinder or delay, that is a concern. And unfortunately, I think with the rhetoric the way it is, it's hard to decipher anymore."

During the question and answer portion of the Virginia Project's training, for instance, people speculated without evidence that Democrats would use vaccine mandates to suppress Republicans from participating and that they would stuff absentee ballot boxes overnight between poll watcher shifts. (Piper emphasizes that this isn't possible because the boxes are sealed with observers watching and are not opened again until they are counted.)

Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, has walked a tightrope on voting integrity issues ahead of Tuesday's election — not fully embracing Trump's election lies and potentially turning off independent voters, but also not going so far as to contradict Trump directly whenever possible and risk drawing his ire.

For example, Youngkin did not attend the Take Back Virginia rally and denounced the idea of pledging allegiance to the Jan. 6 flag.

But he also waited until after he had secured the Republican nomination for governor this year before he acknowledged that Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.

"There's a reckoning that the Republican Party is going to have to come to terms with," said Guy-Uriel Charles, an election law expert at Harvard University. "It's going to have to figure out to what extent is it going to play with these types of insurrectionist, unserious, democracy-harming set of narratives."

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Transcript :

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's been one year since the 2020 election, and one thing that hasn't changed since then - the ex-president, Donald Trump, has not stopped spreading lies about the outcome since he lost. Those lies have taken hold among most of his supporters and led to changes to voting systems across the country in Republican-led states. Here to help us understand what these changes mean for the country and how they're playing out in elections taking place this year are NPR's Miles Parks, who covers voting and disinformation, and our national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, let's start with you. How much impact is Trump still having as he continues to repeat the lie that the 2020 election was stolen?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Trump is having a huge impact. You know, the big lie about the last election and the whitewashing of the January 6 attack on the Capitol undermines faith in democracy. And of course, it can also lead to Republicans pushing for changes in the election system based on those falsehoods. You know, faith in American democracy among Republican voters has really plummeted. We have some new numbers from an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that's out this morning that shows just 1 in 3 Republicans trust that U.S. elections are fair. And that just has no basis in fact.

MARTINEZ: Wow. Miles, so there's an election going on right now in Virginia, a very close race for governor. Is some of this playing out there?

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Yes. I mean, we are definitely seeing signs that elections post-2020, at least in the near future, may not be the same. I've been doing some reporting on that idea. For example, there was an event outside Richmond in early October that opened with those in attendance pledging allegiance to a flag that was at the Capitol on January 6.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I also want to invite Kim from Chesapeake. She's carrying an American flag that was carried at the peaceful rally with Donald J. Trump on January 6.

(CHEERING)

PARKS: And for many of the event speakers, election integrity was at the top of the priority list - not just arguing against rules or procedures, like ballot drop boxes and vote by mail; Republicans want their voters to be more involved in every aspect of the nuts and bolts of voting. One of the rally speakers was Mark Finchem, a Republican running for secretary of state in Arizona.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK FINCHEM: You are responsible for maintaining your election - not me, not me. You are. You cannot leave this to someone else.

PARKS: That involvement can take a couple different forms. One is poll watching. A conservative group called the Virginia Project released a four-part YouTube training series on how to become a poll watcher and, specifically, how to look for fraud in this November's election. Here's a sample.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Remember; if any of our theories about potential fraud are true, the cheating can happen in every precinct. Having 100% coverage, with eyes on every ballot, we can mitigate the potential for fraud.

PARKS: Finchem, the Arizona candidate, also mentioned canvassing, the idea that by informally polling a community on how they voted, you can sniff out voter fraud, especially absentee ballot fraud.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FINCHEM: If we have fictitious votes in a county, in a state, you need to canvass and find out - are there really people behind that door?

PARKS: Experts say these sorts of efforts don't produce reliable-enough data to actually prove whether there was fraud or not. Meanwhile, election officials are torn. On the one hand, it's a good thing when people want to be involved in how democracy works. On the other, according to Chris Piper, the commissioner of Virginia's Department of Elections, there's a real risk in people taking their roles too far if they go into it already convinced that cheating is happening.

CHRIS PIPER: As long as the intention is to truly be part of the democracy, that's great. If the intention is to disrupt, to hinder or delay, that is a concern. And unfortunately, I think with the rhetoric the way it is, it's hard to decipher anymore.

PARKS: During the Q&A portion of the Virginia Project poll watcher training, for instance, people theorized that Democrats would use vaccine mandates to suppress Republicans from participating or that they would find other ways to cheat their way to an election victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I understand what you're trying to do from the perspective of the individuals being there and observing and trying to catch everything, but you do realize there's a huge gap when you go home at night and false ballots could be entered very easily into the system, and there's no one there to protect them.

PARKS: I asked Piper, the election official in Virginia, about that claim, and he said it's just wrong. Party representatives watch until everything is sealed up in boxes, and then it's all opened again for counting. But as we know, that does not stop this sort of misinformation from spreading.

MARTINEZ: Now, Miles, how has our Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, talked about election integrity issues? I mean, has he gone along with Trump and the line that there was fraud?

PARKS: So it seems like he's really struggling to walk this very thin tightrope. He did release a statement denouncing the whole pledging allegiance to this flag that was taken to the Capitol on January 6, but it took him months this year before he acknowledged Joe Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 election. You know, audits are another good example. Youngkin has called for an audit of Virginia's voting equipment, but Virginia already does some of the best audits in the country. So he's sort of saying, we need this thing that's already happening, and in doing so, he's not necessarily lying about the election system, but he's also able to play to this base because for a lot of Republican voters, when you say audit, you're referencing, you know, what's been happening the last couple months in Arizona, and it's shorthand at this point for this feeling that you don't trust the elections process.

MARTINEZ: So, Mara, if Republicans need to walk this line to avoid defying Donald Trump, where could that lead in coming elections next year and in 2024?

LIASSON: When you believe or insist that the last election was stolen, then that belief can be used to justify doing just about anything to get the outcome you want in the next election. If they stole it from me, well, I'm going to make sure I rig it for me next time. And that raises the specter of state legislatures declaring an election failed - for whatever reason they come up with - and sending an alternative slate of electors to Congress. And you have to think, if the next speaker is Kevin McCarthy, would he certify the Electoral College vote that would elect a Democratic president? It's hard to imagine that he would, since a majority of Republicans on January 6, after the violent insurrection was put down, voted to overturn the election results.

You know, the other thing that all these efforts to suppress the vote or subvert elections merge with is this other older bedrock belief among the Republican Party that the fewer people who vote, the lower the turnout is, the better it is for them, even though Republicans have won many high-turnout elections. You know, Trump himself said this early in the pandemic, when Democrats were trying to expand early voting and vote by mail. He said this on "Fox & Friends."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX AND FRIENDS")

DONALD TRUMP: They had things - levels of voting that if you ever agreed to it, you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again.

LIASSON: Levels of voting, like voting by mail or early voting days. But since Trump keeps on lying about the last election being stolen, some Republicans worry that by talking so much about how the last election was stolen, Trump risks depressing the Republican vote, something they think he did in Georgia this year in that special election, where he told Republicans that their vote might not count. Some of them believed him and stayed home.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Mara Liasson and Miles Parks. Mara and Miles, thank you very much.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

PARKS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM WILL SOUND'S "CFERN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.