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

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
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.

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."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.