While Donald Trump often rails against a “rigged” election on Twitter and at rallies nationwide, he goes a few steps further in Pennsylvania, a state crucial to the Republican’s fading chances to win the White House.
Here, he has made direct appeals since August to recruit voters as poll monitors on Election Day and has pointed specifically at Philadelphia as a city beset by voter fraud.
Despite offering little evidence for any of his claims, his “rigged” election message is resonating with his followers in this traditional battleground state where Democratic rival Hillary Clinton has opened up a wide lead. But his calls for poll watchers on Nov. 8 is drawing a mix of confusion, concern and tepid support.
In some cases, Trump’s talk of fraud appears to have made some of his own followers more resigned to an election loss, even though independent studies show U.S. voting chicanery is exceptionally rare and certainly never on a national scale.
Since Aug. 8, when Trump first urged supporters in the state to “watch other polling places and make sure that it’s 100-percent fine,” civil rights groups have expressed fears that some supporters will take the idea too far by forming roaming, vigilante-style crowds intimidating voters.
Trump supporter Mark Bowman, 53, says he isn’t the type to attend a political rally or put campaign stickers on his car. And he isn’t confident the election results will be correct.
“I hate to say it, but I don’t have a lot of faith,” Bowman said. “Voter fraud is rampant especially in the cities.”
But, in a comment echoed by nearly two dozen Trump supporters in the state’s reliably Republican central regions, he said he thinks nothing can be done to stop it and that becoming an amateur poll watcher is a step too far.
“What authority do I have to confront someone?” said the resident of Shermans Dale, a rural community of about 5,000 people. “Your average citizen, you’re going to end up in a confrontation with someone. You’re going to end up in a bad situation.”
There are official channels to monitor elections. Pennsylvania has a system that allows campaigns and political parties to designate official poll monitors, who are allowed into the polling places and can register official complaints if they think someone isn’t a valid voter.
A form on the Trump campaign’s website asks voters to help Trump “stop crooked Hillary from rigging this election” by becoming a volunteer Trump election observer.
But in an example of the Trump campaign’s near non-existent effort to organize field operations in key swing states, there is little evidence that the recruitment drive is translating into legions of officially sanctioned volunteers. Repeated inquiries from Reuters about efforts to staff polling places went unanswered by his campaign.
The rules allow each candidate and the state parties to name monitors. With federal and local candidates both on the November ballot, there could be dozens of watchers in a single precinct. But those familiar with past elections say rarely does that happen. Instead, campaigns tend to focus on only the most fought over swing districts.
Steve Reigh, 57, a realtor from Elliottsburg, Pennsylvania, agrees with Trump that the election is likely to be rigged, but says he also resigned to the outcome of the election, win or lose.
“What are you going to do?” he said.
‘Really close vetting’
Some Trump supporters are branching out on their own.
Jack Posobiec, a navy veteran and special projects director at Citizens for Trump, a grassroots support group, says he hopes to mobilize 3,000 volunteers in several key swing states in the final days of the campaign, including busing supporters from Texas to Ohio.
On Oct. 1, Trump told a largely white rally of supporters in Manheim in central Pennsylvania that they should go to neighborhoods other than their own on election day and “watch”.
“You’ve got to get everybody you know and you got to watch your polling booths, because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania, certain areas,” Trump said. “So go and vote and then go and check out areas because a lot of bad things happen and we don’t want to lose for that reason.”
Dale Ho, a voting rights lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, said on Twitter that Trump’s calls for “poll watchers” were a “recipe for intimidation and discrimination.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Married Trump supporters Gina, 75, and Larry Snyder, 77, of Newport agree the election could be rigged but doubt anything can be done about it, including poll-watching.
Candace Lowe, 40, of Elliottsburg, Pennsylvania, said she is resigned to a Trump loss because the government “can fudge stuff.” Turning out en-masse to watch polling centers on election night won’t change that, she said.
In Mechanicsburg, an overwhelmingly Republican borough of nearly 9,000 people, realtor Steve Johansen helped to set up a Trump field office in a skating rink, but he has no plans to monitor any polling places.
“I have faith in the system,” he said.