PHILADELPHIA – In a scathing rebuke, a federal judge on Thursday denied the Pennsylvania Republican Party's effort to allow poll watchers from anywhere in the state monitor precincts on Election Day.
Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judge Gerald J. Pappert said the state GOP's request was "unreasonably delayed," is not in the public interest and does not meet the standard for a last-minute intervention from the court.
"Any intervention at this point risks practical concerns including disruption, confusion or other unforeseen deleterious effects," Pappert wrote. "Plaintiffs waited until eighteen days before the election to bring this case. ... Were the Court to enter the requested injunction, poll watchers would be allowed to roam the Commonwealth on election day for the first time in the Election Code's seventy-nine year history — giving the Commonwealth and county election officials all of five days' notice to prepare for the change."
Congressman Bob Brady, who is also chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, said he was happy with the ruling.
"We don't need out-of-county people," Brady said. "They're just trying to suppress the vote and cause confusion. It's totally ridiculous."
The state Republican Party filed for a temporary restraining order Oct. 21, claiming that the current Pennsylvania law regarding poll watchers is unconstitutional. State law allows poll watchers to monitor locations only within the county in which they are registered to vote.
The challenge came as polls showed a tight race between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Trump has warned of "rigged elections" in "other communities" including cities like Philadelphia and has encouraged supporters to monitor the polls.
State Republican Party spokeswoman Megan Sweeney called the ruling "a blow to openness and transparency in our electoral system" and said the party would review its legal options.
In his ruling, Pappert said a decision to intervene could have disproportionately burdened Philadelphia election officials on the eve of the election.
"To the extent that the Party wishes to allocate newly available poll watchers on election day, it will of course send them to Philadelphia," Pappert wrote. "The poll watchers will all need to be properly credentialed in Philadelphia County and they will all seek those credentials between now and election day. ... As county workers focus on myriad critical tasks in the final days before the election, an injunction's likely effect of increasing their workload (perhaps to the point of impossibility) weighs strongly against granting it."
The lawsuit also claimed that the law violates voters' free speech — an argument Pappert characterized as weak, adding that poll watching is not a fundamental right under the First Amendment.
"The content of a poll watcher's statements cannot be characterized as political speech," Pappert said. "Plaintiffs' assertion that statements made in one's capacity as a poll watcher constitute core political speech is meritless."