Loudoun County General Registrar Judy Brown doesn’t recall seeing many poll watchers during early voting last year — they usually turn up only on Election Day, primarily during presidential elections.
And in a county that has been trending blue for years, more poll watchers are wearing Republican badges, Brown said, often outnumbering Democrats 2 to 1 at each location. They observe the voter check-in and the ballot drop boxes. They have asked to observe election officers opening voting equipment. They watch as election officers report the vote tallies at the end of the night and ensure slates are blank when the polls open in the morning.
“I really think it’s a result of all the stuff in the news media about there being fraud in the election process last year,” Brown said. “They can come to the same conclusion as we do: that there is no fraud in the process.”
Across Virginia, the GOP “election integrity” push has largely driven the influx of election observers in this year’s gubernatorial race, according to local, state and national Republican officials. In some trainings, prospective poll watchers have been taught to see themselves as a bulwark against election fraud, and some groups have been corralling their own poll watcher armies.
But while multiple registrars said they welcomed the poll watchers’ commitment to transparency, some tactics have made election officials uneasy — because it’s clear former president Donald Trump’s claims of mass voter fraud have driven a lot of the interest, said Fairfax County General Registrar Scott Konopasek. It’s created a sense among some staff members that the observers don’t trust them, he said.
“Virginians have no reason to doubt the integrity of any of the elections they voted in,” Konopasek said. “There is no lack of integrity. But there is a narrative that says there is, and that’s what they’re responding to.”
Poll watchers, or election observers, are distinct from election officers in that they are not allowed to assist voters in the polling place. As their names suggest, they only watch, while reporting any issues to election officers who can resolve them, or to party officials. Poll watchers are authorized by political parties or candidates, and up to three from each party can be in the room to watch the election unfold.
Numerous GOP officials described the poll watcher trainings as a branch extending from election integrity efforts — something Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin has seized on as a core tenet of his gubernatorial campaign, calling for an audit of Virginia voting machines and repeatedly encouraging poll watchers to volunteer. His campaign, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment, invites people to join an “election integrity task force,” while hosting poll watcher trainings across the state.
On the national level, the Republican National Committee, which developed an election integrity unit during the 2020 race, has since expanded the program in 12 battleground states. This year, according to a spokeswoman, it’s trained 3,500 prospective poll watchers in Virginia — where the country’s only competitive gubernatorial election is taking place next week.
And on the local level, GOP committees have developed their own “election integrity subcommittees” to review voter rolls and their local registrars’ election practices — efforts that local GOP officials said have provided avenues for hundreds of volunteers to get involved in the election through poll watching or becoming sworn election officers.
Steve Knotts, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, said that he did not believe voter fraud was a problem in Virginia, but that many members of his group still have voter fraud fears and have been galvanized by the rhetoric of the past year to want to find out for themselves.
Poll watching, Knotts said, is a “hands-on” way for those with questions to get them answered. He said 500 to 600 people have signed up, ascribing the influx of volunteers to concerns about election integrity and enthusiasm for Youngkin.
“Their job is to see anything that looks irregular and point it out. We’re not there trying to trap anybody or cause a disruption — it’s just to watch the process,” he said.
A ‘line of defense’ against fraud
On a Tuesday evening early this month, streams of prospective poll watchers filed into an American Legion outpost in Arlington, gathering at tables in a room blanketed by stale cigarette smoke for the latest GOP training event. Most trainees did not agree to an interview, but one, Jose Galdos, said he signed up because “I just feel like the integrity of our elections is slipping.”
Galdos, who immigrated to Virginia from Bolivia as a child, said that while he was concerned about election integrity, he did not believe Trump’s claims of a stolen election. He saw his job as a poll watcher as a way to “just keep people honest,” watching out for easily fixable mistakes.
State and local GOP representatives would not allow a Washington Post reporter to observe the training, which was organized by the Youngkin campaign and state GOP and led by Clara Belle Wheeler, a former Virginia Board of Elections member who advocates for stricter voting laws at the Virginia Institute for Public Policy. But a similar video training offered by Wheeler at the “Virginia Election Integrity Summit” in Richmond in August is available online through the conservative Leadership Institute.
“Poll watchers are what they used to say about small children: They should be seen and not heard,” Wheeler told the crowd in the video, urging them to take notes and report any observable problems — not intervene themselves.
Wheeler offered pointers on what to watch for: voting tallies that don’t match the number of voters checked in that day; anyone trying to influence voters; unauthorized people touching voting machines.
At the end of Wheeler’s presentation, a PowerPoint slide told the trainees that election officers and poll watchers are the main “line of defense against election fraud. Both need to know how to stop fraud and what to do if it does occur.”
“You’ve all got to be out there. You’re the front line of defense. We need 15,000,” Wheeler said.
Attached to the Leadership Institute’s online training was a “Virginia Election Observer Manual” provided by Virginians for America First (VFAF) — among the groups that have been independently recruiting poll watchers across the state in a hunt for alleged fraud.
The group’s election observer manual said the poll watchers’ objective is to “detect and deter malfeasance through complete coverage of and reporting from all precincts in the state.” The group plans to “synthesize” poll watchers’ reports about alleged problems, suggesting it could use the reports to question the validity of the election.
“Each precinct poll watcher (or team) will have a checklist and report form to facilitate monitoring, and the collection of data that can be used to validate of [sic] delegitimize the election process at the precinct after the election,” the manual explains.
Wheeler did not respond to a request for comment about whether the VFAF manual was distributed as part of her training.
Joshua Pratt, the group’s statewide director, said separate poll watcher trainings VFAF helped organize equipped about 400 volunteers. Additionally, he said, the group has begun “real-time” investigative canvassing of absentee ballots and plans to release its findings later.
An ‘army’ of observers
Virginians for America First was founded by Republican congressional candidate Leon Benjamin this past spring after he lost to Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) by 23 points last November. Benjamin refused to concede while raising money off “potential voter fraud” in his race and parroting Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.
VFAF says it is a part of a nationwide network of advocacy organizations working on election integrity, including Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Limited Government, and No Left Turn in Education. Another advocacy group, called Alliance for Free Citizens, led by former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, says on its website that VFAF is one of several partner organizations that operate in states such as Michigan and Florida.
In Virginia, similar groups have been encouraging followers to sign up essentially as vigilantes against potential fraud. The Virginia Project, a right-wing group that has backed Trump’s false election claims, offered virtual “election integrity trainings” in August, which its election integrity director, Ned Jones, said about 400 people attended.
Jones said in an August training that the group was hoping to muster “an army of aggressive, respectful, well-trained observers,” though it referred people to the state and local GOP committees for more formal training.
“If any of our theories about potential fraud are true, then cheating can happen at every precinct and every [central absentee precinct] center,” Jones said on a Zoom video. “By having 100 percent coverage with poll watcher eyes on every ballot, we can mitigate the potential for fraud.”
One woman questioned whether poll watchers could stay overnight at registrars’ offices to guard ballots from fraud, though Jones said it wasn’t practicable.
Konopasek in Fairfax County said the Virginia Project has requested a large volume of documents from his office, while VFAF requested to meet with officials as part of a statewide effort.
In late August and September, the group requested interviews with top election administrators in every jurisdiction, saying they were members of a nonpartisan group that wanted to educate the public and restore integrity to elections, according to registrars and VFAF’s Pratt.
Kellie Acors, the registrar in Spotsylvania County, said she met with a member of the group “for the sake of transparency.” “He was almost trying to sell our staff on his belief that the election was rigged,” Acors said. “We tried to answer questions without getting into security, letting him know all the checks and balances. I don’t know if we changed his mind.”
Some election officials were wary of the group. Floyd I. Roberson, vice chairman for the Fredericksburg City Electoral Board, sent an email to all other elections officials across the state on Oct. 5 alerting them to the group’s statewide efforts, according to a copy of the email obtained by The Post. Fredericksburg’s election board instructed the city’s election administrators not to respond to the group’s requests, Roberson wrote.
Konopasek said he also declined to participate in the interview, saying it struck him as “entrapment” and fearing the group could twist his words to further its political objectives.
Last month, VFAF released a report that it said was based on some of its interviews with registrars. Among the recommendations was implementing voter ID and proof of citizenship requirements, ending early voting and limiting absentee voting, and ending the use of voting machines. Speaking at a Sept. 20 fundraising event for the group to unveil the report in Richmond were Joe Flynn, brother of Michael Flynn, the retired Army lieutenant general who served briefly as Trump’s first national security adviser, and Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com, a key player in challenging the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
“How many people from Virginia feel that Joe Biden actually won the electoral vote in Virginia?” Flynn asked the crowd, according to a video of the event posted online. The audience responded with boos and shouted “No!”
Biden won Virginia by 10 points last year.
A ‘civic duty’
State and local Democratic officials in Northern Virginia did not report any similar influx of interest from poll-watching volunteers this year compared to past elections. The Virginia Democratic Party’s equivalent poll watcher recruitment program is called the “voter protection team,” which coordinates various election-related volunteers around the state.
“Democrats care about protecting our democracy and making sure folks can vote safely and securely,” said Manuel Bonder, spokesman for the Virginia Democratic Party. “I think there’s a big contrast between that and what we see on the Republican side.”
Knotts, the Fairfax GOP chairman, said he worried perpetuation of the “big lie” — that fraud cost Trump the election — was “giving election integrity a bad rep.”
“I just don’t want people to conflate the ‘big lie’ with election integrity,” Knotts said.
While many “believed strongly” that voter fraud was a problem, he said, many poll-watching volunteers just wanted to ensure basic election laws and procedures were followed.
A number of Republican poll watchers The Post encountered at early-voting locations in Northern Virginia expressed as much. At the Mount Vernon Governmental Center in Fairfax County on a Tuesday afternoon this month, Tammy Chincheck said she wanted to be a poll watcher because her grandmother had been one — and because she just retired as a history teacher and had found the time. It had nothing to do with fears of voter fraud. “I’m just fulfilling my civic duty,” she said.
“They make sure I’m not making any errors or mistakes!” the polling location’s supervisor, James Hix, cracked as he stepped in to inform Chincheck and her Democratic counterpart of the latest vote tally.
Hix, too, said he was impressed by the “tremendous” increase in poll watchers this year — some elections in his 31-year career he wouldn’t see any at all, he added.
“I’m running out of Republican badges,” he said, and so he reminded Chincheck not to throw hers away.
Antonio Olivo and Dalton Bennett contributed to this report.
More on the 2021 Virginia election
Latest news: Virginia politics
House of Delegates: Four Democratic incumbents, one Republican ousted in primaries