PHILADELPHIA (CBS/CNN) — Be the eyes and ears of the Trump campaign. Be vigilant. Don’t assume the worst in people. And be courteous — even to Democrats.
Those are just some of the instructions the Trump campaign is giving to the tens of thousands of poll watchers it’s preparing to deploy across the country as part of a nationwide effort on Election Day, according to training videos the campaign has posted in 17 states that were reviewed by CNN.
The training videos show what the Trump campaign wants its poll watchers to focus on while voters cast ballots in person and drop off mail-in ballots. Unlike President Donald Trump’s bellicose rhetoric claiming that the election will be full of fraud, the videos emphasize the need for poll watchers to follow the rules and not cause a disruption, while ensuring machines are working properly and ballots are being properly cast.
The poll watchers are told their mission is to “deter” bad behavior — not voters casting legitimate ballots.
“Essentially, the key is to behave yourself and not act like a fool,” says the narrator in the Maine training guide.
A source with knowledge of the process tells CNN that the campaign is looking to have up to 50,000 poll watchers nationwide, and the campaign says it’s on pace to meet that goal. A Republican National Committee official said the organization is ” investing heavily” to ensure staff, volunteers and poll watchers receive rigorous training and abide by each state’s laws. The videos underscore that the campaign is taking steps to ensure its poll watchers are properly trained.
But state and local election officials say their bigger concern is what happens outside the polls — and beyond the laws governing elections — after Trump has repeatedly encouraged his supporters to show up on Election Day.
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it,” Trump said last week during the first presidential debate.
A ‘dog whistle to voters’
The laws and safeguards surrounding poll watchers vary by state, and many include official registration and how many people from each party can watch at a specific location. But experts warn that Trump’s remarks will fuel issues with “unofficial” poll watchers — people who show up outside polling locations beyond the reach of those rules and intimidate voters.
Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford said poll watching is completely legal in Nevada but poll watchers must sign an affidavit that they agree not to talk to voters. Poll watchers are not supposed to intimidate voters in any way, he said.
Ford called Trump’s comments at the debate a “dog whistle to voters for voter intimidation.”
The Trump campaign is not concerned about its poll watchers engaging in voter intimidation, a source familiar with the campaign told CNN. The source said the campaign has staff in each state assisting and supervising people and working with local election officials to make sure they’re complying with state laws.
In a Pennsylvania training video, the instructor tells poll watchers specifically not to challenge every ballot, like Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon recently suggested. The source said the campaign doesn’t envision slowing things down, but instead its goal is “to make sure election officials follow up.”
CBS News’ Battleground Tracker poll shows Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden holding a seven-point lead over the president — 51% to 44%.
‘Your mission is to deter’
The training videos from the Trump campaign effectively describe in detail the “do’s” and “don’ts” of poll watching.
There’s specific instruction on things it wants its watchers to be looking for, including ensuring that polls open on time, that campaigning isn’t happening inside polling places and that there’s no improper voting assistance. Poll watchers are told to report irregularities to Trump lawyers.
In some of the videos, such as in states that are conducting universal mail-in voting, the videos divert from legalese and lean on campaign rhetoric.
“You have a mission. Your mission is to deter,” the Georgia video says. “Through your presence at the polls you will deter mismanagement and deliberate attacks that could sway the overall results of the election.”
In Montana and some other states, poll observers are instructed to “monitor neighborhoods for loose ballots.” Montana’s governor just issued a directive that counties could mail ballots to all registered voters. Republican voters have asked the Supreme Court to intervene.
“An observer may be expected to track voter participation through a digital phone application and a paper copy to ensure voters turn out to vote … once,” one slide from a Wisconsin training video reads.
The North Carolina presentation tells poll observers to be on the lookout for people taking photographs of themselves voting, because they could be participating in vote buying. “Watch for someone making a scene to distract attention away from something else that may be going on,” the instructor says.
In Nevada, poll workers are told to look at body language. “If you see a confused look on a voter’s face, or a confused look on the poll worker’s face, or any kind of delay in the process, there’s your clue,” the video says.
The Trump campaign’s instruction for poll workers in Georgia are perhaps the most specific.
“Please note any staff changes throughout the day and also keep logs of the average volume at the location,” the Georgia state instructor says, reading the presentation slide. “This is how we can determine the average traffic throughout the day and note any discrepancies that raise red flags.”
‘Please be courteous’
Richard Pildes, a CNN election law analyst and professor at the New York University School of Law, noted the differences in tone among the various state videos. “The Georgia video is calm, noninflammatory and highly professional in giving poll watchers the text of the relevant laws and offering precise guidance,” he said. “The Montana video, in contrast, includes an attack against Democrats for that state’s mail-in voting policy.”
One notable message the videos emphasize is the importance of following the rules for challenging votes. In Colorado, for instance, poll watchers are told they must have “concrete personal evidence of the facts” to challenge a vote.
“Simply because someone has out-of-state plates or they don’t speak English, those are not reasons for a challenge,” the narrator says in the Colorado video.
In Minnesota, a state known for its “Minnesota nice” slogan, poll watchers are told: “Do not automatically assume the worst in these folks.”
“Please be courteous,” the Pennsylvania instructor says, “to board of elections staff and other watchers — yes, even our Democrat friends.”
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