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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Observing the elections process already is common here in Washington

Cindy Zapotocky, a Republican Party election observer, gets a close view of a ballot’s precinct number while she was watching the recount of the 6th Legislative District race between John Ahern and John Driscoll, December 2, 2008 at the Spokane County Elections Office. Driscoll eventually won the race.  (DAN PELLE)
Cindy Zapotocky, a Republican Party election observer, gets a close view of a ballot’s precinct number while she was watching the recount of the 6th Legislative District race between John Ahern and John Driscoll, December 2, 2008 at the Spokane County Elections Office. Driscoll eventually won the race. (DAN PELLE)

In his latest attack on the American elections process, President Donald Trump in Tuesday night’s debate urged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” amid claims vote-by-mail is filled with fraud.

Leaders in both parties in Washington say the poll- watching system in the state is well-tested and adds credibility to the process. Democrats, however, are concerned that Trump’s repeated attacks on state elections could discourage people from casting ballots.

The Trump campaign has said it has plans to leverage volunteers across the country to poll-watch, according to the New York Times.

In Washington, poll watching looks a little different because the entire state votes by mail, but county auditors do allow observers into ballot processing centers. It’s a process that local parties call an important check to the system, but not because of widespread fraud.

“Observers have a very defined and definite role in elections,” Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said.

Poll watching is common in many states, allowing political parties, candidates and committees formed to support or oppose ballot issues to appoint watchers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, most states have specific rules for who can and cannot be a poll watcher and what exactly their duty is.

In Washington, observers, limited to two at a time, must be appointed by a political party or a campaign.

“People can’t just walk in off the street and demand to watch what we do,” said Dalton, a Democrat.

Observers who are chosen must go through a training process, which Dalton said will occur in the next few weeks. The training process familiarizes the observers with the elections process and provides ground rules, such as not touching ballots or machines.

Observers may only watch the process, Dalton said. They don’t get to question or audit what is done. If they do have questions, they must direct them to an elections supervisor.

They may watch and report back to their party or campaign what the process is, she said.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, said our poll- watching program gives transparency to the process.

We have an excellent observer program in Washington state, and I encourage anyone who has questions or doubts about voting by mail to inquire about becoming an observer with their county elections office,” Wyman said in a prepared statement. “What I expressly discourage are people who intend to visit county voting centers or election facilities to interfere in the voting process.”

Dan Daines, state committeeman for the Spokane County Republican Party, called the observer process in Washington a “very organized system.”

“Every single ballot gets looked at by a government employee and a Democrat and Republican volunteer,” he said.

Nicole Bishop, Spokane County Democratic Party chair, said the party has no desire to interfere with elections but is happy to be involved in observation.

“It’s an important check to have in place to make sure we do have a fair election that is promised to our country,” she said.

Observation is common every election, but what concerns Bishop the most this year is the paranoia behind it nationally. Trump’s desire to have poll watchers everywhere comes from a similar place as his unfounded voter fraud concerns, Bishop said, adding she thinks it could lead to more voter suppression.

She said she doesn’t want voters to become disinterested in voting because they think their vote won’t count or that the election will be stolen.

“It is absolutely your right as a citizen to vote,” she said.

Some people might have concerns about potential fraud, but Daines said he does not, although he said he does appreciate having both parties able to supervise and make sure nothing goes wrong.

The process just gives everybody a little more confidence, he said.

Will Casey, communications director at the Washington State Democratic Party, said Trump’s attempt to intimidate people about voting aren’t relevant in Washington because the state has voted by mail for so long:

“We don’t really see those threats materialize here in Washington state.”

In a Thursday news conference, Gov. Jay Inslee said the state is “committed to seeing every valid ballot counts” and accused Trump of trying to undermine the public’s faith in the coming election.

“Washington itself has been threatened by this because we have mail-in ballots,” Inslee said. He urged state and local officials of both parties to call on Trump to “cease and desist” with comments questioning the integrity of the election.

Dalton said there have been instances where observers have caught something that was wrong, such as a processor accidentally marking a name incorrectly on a reprinted ballot. That instance occurred a long time ago and is not very common, Dalton said.

In Washington, every voter can be an observer of their own ballot, Dalton said. By using the tracker feature on, voters can track at exactly which stage their ballot is.

“What people need to do is really pay attention to the processing of their own ballot,” Dalton said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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