A few dozen people recently filed into a tidy storefront in a strip mall in Forsyth County for a straightforward presentation on how to monitor polls.
The crowd, a mix of mostly older voters and college students, listened attentively as a trainer calmly instructed them on the dos and don’ts of poll watching and fielded a handful of questions.
The hohum presentation by the Republican National Committee staffer usually wouldn’t merit much attention. But in an era of polarized politics shaped by false claims of election fraud promoted by former President Donald Trump, the new GOP push to monitor the polls has attracted scrutiny.
Democrats and voting rights activists have voiced fears that Republicans were training an army of partisans intent on disrupting elections. Their concerns are not unfounded. After the 2020 election, Trump supporters used reports from some observers to amplify false claims.
Now Republicans seem intent on reframing efforts to recruit volunteers to monitor the polls, a process embraced by both parties that’s deeply rooted in the state’s election system.
At the session observed by The Atlanta Journal Constitution, trainer Jonny Moseley walked observers through a presentation that included no mention of voting fraud claims but provided detailed instructions on how to handle perceived problems.
Moseley explicitly instructed the would-be poll watchers not to interact with voters inside or outside the polling site and to avoid confrontations. Instead, they were urged to call a GOP hotline staffed by election lawyers who are trained to intervene.
“Do not ever talk to a voter,” said Moseley, the RNC’s Georgia election integrity director. “We don’t want any sort of appearance that anyone is trying to influence anyone to vote.”
The effort coincides with ongoing turmoil over false claims of election fraud promoted by Trump and his allies. An AJC poll in April found about 40% of GOP voters said they lacked confidence the November elections will be conducted fairly and accurately.
The 2020 presidential election wasn’t stolen. Three separate tallies of the roughly 5 million ballots upheld Democrat Joe Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia, court challenges by Trump allies were quashed, and bipartisan election officials have vouched for the results.
Republican officials say their effort is already yielding results. The RNC held in-person sessions in more than 30 Georgia counties, and it has trained more than 1,500 poll watchers in the state, Moseley said. About 350 voting-related issues were resolved during the May 24 primary through a party hotline.
‘A long memory’
Poll watching has long played a crucial role in the voting process. Both parties and their allies have monitored polls in Georgia for decades to ensure workers follow rules and flag attorneys if issues aren’t resolved.
And the Democratic Party of Georgia, which has been engaged in observer training for decades, has expanded its voting rights initiatives after Republicans adopted a sweeping rewrite of election laws that includes new voter ID requirements and new limitations on ballot drop boxes.
But this is also somewhat new ground for the RNC, which has been blocked from training poll observers since 1982, when a consent decree essentially forced the party to rely on state parties and conservative-leaning groups to train volunteers to monitor voting sites.
After the restriction was lifted in 2018, the RNC recruited thousands of poll observers for the 2020 vote. They drew more attention following the election, however, with unsubstantiated allegations of fraud at polling sites in Georgia.
For example, Republican poll watchers claimed they were told to leave State Farm Arena on election night in 2020, but state investigators found they departed on their own when they saw some election staffers leave the room. A poll watcher’s claim that he saw a staffer handling ballots incorrectly in Chatham County led to a lawsuit that was quickly dismissed.
At the training session, Moseley focused on how observers can work to ensure election laws are followed without interfering in the process.
They were told to arm themselves with a pen and paper to record any problems they might see because “it’s better to have a short pencil than a long memory.”
And they were urged to watch for violations of state law, such as obstructions at the polls or examples of electioneering, which prohibits people from handing out T-shirts or freebies within 150 feet of voting sites and 25 feet of a line of people waiting to cast ballots.
‘Eyes and ears’
State and local officials see the expanded poll watching efforts as part of a system that’s already under the microscope.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office said the Republican is “justifiably proud” of Georgia’s election system.
“Anyone who wants to see the nuts and bolts of our voting process is welcome to watch it in action,” spokesman Mike Hassinger said.
Nancy Boren, the director of elections and voter registration in Muscogee County, said her county boasts a “planned, coordinated effort to train poll watchers from both parties after receiving input from elections staff and election board members.”
“I view it simply as additional eyes and ears on the ground with poll watchers from both major parties participating,” she said.
The training session in Cumming attracted both veteran Republican volunteers and newer faces. Among them was John Longshore, a Kennesaw State University student from Cherokee County.
“There’s been a lot of finger-pointing and accusations, but I’m looking ahead at 2022 and 2024,” he said. “I wanted to learn more about the legislative changes. This is my way of doing something about it — to familiarize myself with what’s happening in Georgia.”
Poll watching recruits
The Republican National Committee reports that it has trained more than 1,500 poll watchers in Georgia and that it’s held in-person sessions in more than 30 counties.