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President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on Nov. 5, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Vucci) President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on Nov. 5, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Vucci)

President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on Nov. 5, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Vucci)

Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy November 12, 2020

Trump’s wrong claim that election observers were barred in Pennsylvania, Michigan

If Your Time is short

  • Republican election observers have been allowed to observe the canvassing of ballots in both Pennsylvania and Michigan, state officials said. 

  • PolitiFact previously fact-checked false claims about the ballot counting in Philadelphia and Detroit, two cities targeted by Trump campaign litigation. Both cities have allowed election observers from both parties to monitor the process.

  • There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud that would require hundreds of thousands of ballots to be invalidated.

President Donald Trump wrongly claimed that Republican election observers have been barred from watching ballot counts in Pennsylvania and Michigan, repeating a falsehood that has been contradicted by his own campaign lawyers in court hearings and lawsuits.

"Nobody wants to report that Pennsylvania and Michigan didn’t allow our Poll Watchers and/or Vote Observers to Watch or Observe," Trump wrote in a Nov. 11 tweet tagged as "disputed" by Twitter. "This is responsible for hundreds of thousands of votes that should not be allowed to count. Therefore, I easily win both states."

Election observers representing the Republican Party and the Trump campaign have been allowed to observe the ballot-counting process alongside Democratic observers in both Pennsylvania and Michigan, despite the president’s repeated claims to the contrary.

A Trump campaign attorney conceded in court that the campaign had a "non-zero number" of election observers in Philadelphia. Another federal lawsuit the campaign filed in Michigan includes hundreds of pages of affidavits from people who served as election observers.

There also remains no evidence of widespread voter fraud that would invalidate "hundreds of thousands of votes" in those states. Independent decision desks for multiple news organizations have called the election for President-elect Joe Biden, who leads Trump by about 52,000 votes in Pennsylvania and 146,000 in Michigan, according to Decision Desk HQ

"President Trump’s claims about lack of observers have been tested and continue to be tested in court," said Rick Hasen, a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine. "Importantly, there has been no proof of illegal votes in the election, and no pathway to go from complaints about inadequate access to overturning the results of the election."

PolitiFact has debunked false claims that GOP observers were denied access in Philadelphia and Detroit. Other fact-checkers who have looked at those cities and their surrounding states have also documented that observers were allowed. Litigation continues in both states as Trump refuses to concede defeat.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Pennsylvania

Trump’s focus in Pennsylvania has been on Philadelphia, where a Nov. 5 judge’s order allowed election observers from both parties to view the ballot-counting process from 6 feet away.

Philadelphia appealed the order, arguing that the original arrangement let all observers "see the entire set up" in detail. The city said it has complied in the meantime by providing closer access to the observers, who were previously kept farther away due to the coronavirus. 

Republican observers were never blocked from observing entirely, despite Trump’s claim. Under questioning from a federal judge in court, a Trump campaign attorney conceded that the campaign had several representatives monitoring the ballot counting.

"At all times, the city commissioners, who are a bipartisan organization, have followed the law," said Kevin Feeley, a spokesperson for the city commissioners. Feeley told PolitiFact Nov. 6 that he was "staring at" observers representing both parties in the city’s convention center.

Ellen Lyon, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said Pennsylvania more broadly has "had a free, fair and secure election" with "the highest degree of transparency," including livestreams of the process in Philadelphia and other counties.

"In all counties, all parties have canvass observers throughout the process," Lyon said, pointing to the commonwealth’s guidelines for observers. "Any insinuation otherwise is a lie."

Featured Fact-check

Election observers watch as election workers process ballots at the Allegheny County elections returns warehouse in Pittsburgh on Nov. 6, 2020. (AP)

"Any laws around poll watchers apply equally to both major parties and any third parties," added Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania.

Michigan

Trump’s tweet is also inaccurate as it relates to Michigan. 

"Absentee ballot counting (in Detroit) was observed by hundreds of Republicans and Democrats," the Michigan Department of State said in a Nov. 12 tweet.

Some confusion over the access afforded to election observers in Detroit can be traced to a chaotic event on Nov. 4., when the convention hall used for canvassing reached the state’s legal limit for election observers and officials had to stop additional observers from entering.

Michigan allows election observers called challengers appointed by political parties and interest groups, as well as poll watchers, to observe the election process.

Over 100 Republican challengers remained inside throughout the counting, PolitiFact reported

A Republican election observer watches over election inspectors as they examine a ballot on Nov. 4, 2020, at the central counting board in Detroit. (AP)

Niraj Warikoo, a reporter with the Detroit Free Press, tweeted that Trump’s claim was a "brazen lie." He said he spent three days in the convention hall and saw many Republican observers. 

Tracy Wimmer, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of State, said she knew of no locations in Michigan that denied access to Republican observers. There is no evidence that would suggest "hundreds of thousands of votes" should be invalidated, she said.

"This is an utterly false and irresponsible claim by Trump," said Samuel Bagenstos, a professor of law at the University of Michigan. "Republican challengers were permitted everywhere in Michigan."

As part of a recent lawsuit filed in Michigan, the Trump campaign presented hundreds of pages of affidavits from election observers alleging voting irregularities and fraud. The Washington Post reviewed them and reported that they made allegations about ballot-counting procedures that have been debunked and complaints that did not reveal wrongdoing. In one affidavit, for example, an observer said military ballots that were cast for Biden "stuck out to me."

"The allegations that there was any fraud, much less fraud that could in any conceivable way call into question Biden's nearly 150,000-vote margin, are really laughable when you look into them," Bagenstos said. "There’s no there there."

According to Business Insider, more than a dozen of the affidavits featured complaints about the required 6 feet of space observers had to keep as a coronavirus precaution. Wimmer said the rules in Michigan apply to all observers regardless of party affiliation.

Our ruling

Trump claimed that "Pennsylvania and Michigan didn’t allow our poll watchers and/or vote observers to watch or observe."

That’s inaccurate. Republican election observers have been allowed to observe the canvassing of ballots in both Pennsylvania and Michigan, including in Philadelphia and Detroit, two of the cities heavily targeted by the Trump campaign’s litigation efforts. Even Trump campaign attorneys have acknowledged having observers present in court hearings and legal filings.

We rate this claim Pants on Fire!

This fact check is available at IFCN’s 2020 US Elections FactChat #Chatbot on WhatsApp. Click here, for more.

Our Sources

Donald J. Trump on Twitter, Nov. 11, 2020

Decision Desk HQ, "2020 General Elections," accessed Nov. 12, 2020

Michigan Department of State on Twitter, Nov. 12, 2020

The Washington Post, "In poll watcher affidavits, Trump campaign offers no evidence of fraud in Detroit ballot-counting," Nov. 11, 2020

Business Insider, "In the Trump campaign's latest election lawsuit, Republican poll watchers complain they couldn't stand within 6 feet of poll workers because of coronavirus guidelines," Nov. 11, 2020

Niraj Warikoo on Twitter, Nov. 11, 2020

Brad Health on Twitter, Nov. 11, 2020

The Trump Campaign, "Trump Campaign Files Suit in Michigan, Citing Irregularities, Incompetence, and Unlawful Vote Counting," Nov. 11, 2020

The Associated Press, "EXPLAINER: Trump’s challenges fail to prove election fraud," Nov. 11, 2020

The Associated Press, "AP FACT CHECK: Trump’s claims on vaccine, election are wrong," Nov. 10, 2020

The New York Times, "There’s no evidence to support claims that election observers were blocked from counting rooms," Nov. 7, 2020

CNN, "Fact check: Trump doubles down on groundless conspiracy theory that GOP poll watchers across the country were sidelined," Nov. 7, 2020

CBS News, "Fact-checking Trump's claims on poll watchers," Nov. 6, 2020

FactCheck.org, "Trump’s Wild, Baseless Claims of Illegal Voting," Nov. 6, 2020

Detroit Free Press, "Here are the rules Michigan poll watchers, election challengers must follow," Nov. 3, 2020

Votes PA, "Guidance Concerning Poll Watchers and Authorized Representatives," Oct. 28, 2020

PolitiFact, "Trump, with help, is trying to sue and tweet his way to a second term. Could it work?" Nov. 11, 2020

PolitiFact, "Donald Trump’s Pants on Fire claim about illegal votes," Nov. 6, 2020

PolitiFact, "Ted Cruz falsely claims Philadelphia is counting votes in ‘shroud of darkness,'" Nov. 6, 2020

PolitiFact, "Over 100 Republican challengers monitored absentee ballot count in Detroit," Nov. 6, 2020

Email interview with Rick Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, Nov. 12, 2020

Email interview with Samuel Bagenstos, professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, Nov. 12, 2020

Email interview with Michael Dimino, professor of law at Widener University Commonwealth Law School, Nov. 12, 2020 

Email interview with Ellen Lyon, deputy director of the office of communications and press at the Pennsylvania Department of State, Nov. 12, 2020

Text interview with Tracy Wimmer, director of media relations at the Michigan Department of State, Nov. 12, 2020

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Trump’s wrong claim that election observers were barred in Pennsylvania, Michigan

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