Right-wing propagandists try to concoct a Philadelphia election scandal

A single Trump poll watcher was briefly barred from a polling site before being let in, and they’re crying fraud

Polling place signs

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

Right-wing media, including Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, are trying to manufacture a scandal after a poll watcher for President Donald Trump’s campaign was turned away from a polling place in Philadelphia, PA. But according to the city’s election commission and the polling place’s election judge, the poll watcher was subsequently allowed in.

Pro-Trump operatives are carrying out their plan to release decontextualized video of polling place operations. Their actions are part of a strategy -- openly touted by the president -- to create chaos, raise doubts about the legitimacy of the vote count, prevent ballots from being counted for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, and ultimately steal the election. In Philadelphia, that strategy is being overseen by Mike Roman, Trump’s director of Election Day operations, who has a sordid history of making “unsubstantiated allegations of fraud and rigging.” Roman is infamous for his role in promoting a video of two members of the New Black Panthers at a Philadelphia polling place in 2008 that the right-wing turned into a years-long pseudoscandal.

On Tuesday morning, Will Chamberlain, editor-in-chief of the right-wing outlet Human Events, circulated video of what he described as a Trump poll watcher being “wrongfully prevented from entering the polling place” on Twitter. He added the hashtag “#StopTheSteal.”

Roman quote-tweeted Chamberlain within minutes, adding without evidence, “This is happening all over the City. The steal is on!”

But according to Philadelphia’s elections commission, that isn’t true. A spokesperson told ProPublica that the poll watcher’s denial was an isolated incident, and that he had been denied entry by mistake and subsequently allowed in. From ProPublica:

Kevin Feeley, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia City Commissioners, which run the city’s elections, told ProPublica that Roman’s allegation is flatly untrue.

“Nonsense,” Feeley said. “That’s not happening.”

Feeley said the video represented an isolated incident and was the result of confusion about whether poll watchers had to be assigned to particular locations or could roam around the city. He said poll watchers are permitted to visit multiple voting sites. “The mistake was corrected, and the guy was admitted,” Feeley said. “We remain confident that the election will be open, honest and produce accurate results.

The spokesperson further explained to BuzzFeed News that the poll worker who made the call was  “going off a law that previously assigned watchers to wards.”

A reporter for The Guardian relayed a similar story after speaking with the polling site’s election judge:

Nonetheless, Chamberlain’s tweet went viral thanks to feverish promotion from pro-Trump trolls, including Donald Trump Jr.; Trump operative Richard Grenell; Republican National Committee national spokesperson Elizabeth Harrington; Fox contributor Sara Carter; former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s podcast; and the Gateway Pundit blog, which frequently promotes pro-Trump conspiracy theories. By 2 p.m. the video had been viewed nearly 2 million times on Twitter.

By the noon hour, millions more were hearing about the story from Rush Limbaugh’s nationally syndicated radio show and Fox News. 

“Republican poll watchers are being kicked out of Philadelphia polling places,” Limbaugh claimed. “The same thing is happening in Pittsburgh, on the western side of the state of Pennsylvania.” 

On Fox’s Outnumbered, contributor Katie Pavlich cited “a certified poll watcher being not allowed to come into one of the polling places to poll watch” as a reason for Republicans to be concerned about the fairness of the election given what she termed “Pennsylvania's long history of voter fraud.” 

(According to Benjamin Ginsburg, the Republican Party’s longtime top election lawyer: “The truth is that after decades of looking for illegal voting, there’s no proof of widespread fraud. At most, there are isolated incidents — by both Democrats and Republicans.”)

Trump is counting on right-wing propagandists to provide this sort of credulous coverage and help him raise doubts about the election’s legitimacy, and they appear eager to help.