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Correcting Trump, election officials detail strict regulations on poll watching

Tom Ensign of Crystal Lake fills out his ballot April 2, 2019, at the polling location inside Bethany Lutheran Church in Crystal Lake.
Tom Ensign of Crystal Lake fills out his ballot April 2, 2019, at the polling location inside Bethany Lutheran Church in Crystal Lake.

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Strict guidelines regulate who is allowed to monitor polling sites in Illinois during an election.

State and county election officials were quick to note that the privilege doesn't extend to just anyone off the street after President Donald Trump urged supporters during Tuesday's debate to "go into the polls and watch very carefully."

"That's not allowed," said Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections. "You have to be a credentialed poll watcher."

Poll watchers can be credentialed by the state election agency or by county election officials, but they also have to be part of a campaign, part of a political party, member of a nonpartisan civic organization or part of an organization supporting or opposing a ballot initiative.

Dietrich said the Illinois Republican Party is the only group that has applied for poll watcher credentials for the Nov. 3 election so far.

When poll watchers arrive at polling locations, they must give their credentials to an election judge and sign in. They also have to sign out when they leave.

Poll watchers are allowed to observe the ballot box is empty before the first ballot is cast, watch election judges examine applications, observe judges comparing voter signatures, monitor the ballot distribution to voters and watch counting procedures after polls close.

Poll watchers also can challenge a person's right to vote, but an election judge is the arbiter of that challenge.

Election judges also can limit the number of poll watchers allowed in a voting site and can enforce those limits if crowding interferes with voting, according to state election law.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, poll watchers may be required to remain at least 6 feet from judges at voting sites this year.

Poll watchers can't wear anything that denotes their support of a candidate or ballot initiative, or they risk being refused entry to the polling place.

Trump also complained during the debate that members of his campaign were wrongly kept away from poll watching in Philadelphia this week. Election officials there disputed the claim.

Trump accused Philadelphia election officials of inappropriately keeping his campaign's poll monitors from observing voters filling out mail ballots at a voting center Tuesday. He was repeating an accusation he and his son had made earlier this week.

But election lawyers note the Trump campaign's watchers had no legal right under state law to observe citizens filling out mail ballots, saying they wouldn't be allowed to watch if voters were filling out their ballots at their "kitchen table."

Gov. JB Pritzker also weighed in on Trump's statements.

"We're encouraging people to be election judges [and] encouraging those who want to be poll watchers. They're allowed to do that. It's very important for us to have these kinds of activities going on," he said. "Those that try to disrupt the vote, they will be held accountable for their actions and we will not let that interfere with voting on Election Day or in the 45 days, roughly, before Election Day when people can vote early and send in their ballots."

Complaints about activities at polling sites during early voting and on Election Day should be directed to the Illinois attorney general's office.

• Daily Herald staff writer Marni Pyke contributed to this report.

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