Philadelphia residents go to the polls on November 8, 2016, at Old First Reformed Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
CNN  — 

The Trump campaign is working to dispatch tens of thousands of election monitors to battleground states in what is shaping up as the Republican Party’s largest-ever poll-watching operation.

The party’s aggressive plans for poll-monitoring have sparked charges from Democrats and voting-rights groups that Republicans are gearing up to suppress voting in key states as President Donald Trump repeatedly claims, without evidence, that voter fraud will imperil November’s election.

Republicans say their new push will allow them to protect election integrity and better coordinate their get-out-vote operations. Both sides are headed for a legal showdown on the issue in Pennsylvania – a state Trump won in 2016 by about 44,000 votes out of 6 million cast.

The Trump campaign is fighting a Pennsylvania law that restricts poll watchers to monitoring voting in the county in which they live – one of dozens of lawsuits filed by Republicans and Democrats that challenge the ground rules of a fast-approaching election that state and local officials are racing to carry out in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“By and large, having these mobilized security forces out at the polls is just a powder keg,” Wendy Weiser, of the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, said of the Republican poll observers. “There is just a very high risk in a hotly contested and emotionally heated environment of people crossing the line.”

In a statement to CNN, Trump campaign general counsel Matthew Morgan, said, “Republicans will be ready to make sure the polls are being run correctly, securely, and transparently as we work to deliver the free and fair election Americans deserve.”

View Trump and Biden head-to-head polling

The massive build-up to monitor voting marks the first time since the 1980 election that the Republican presidential nominee and the Republican National Committee will work together to monitor polling activity. In 2018, a federal judge allowed a consent decree to expire that for decades had sharply restricted the RNC’s “ballot security” activities without prior judicial approval.

The 1982 decree stemmed from a Democratic National Committee lawsuit that accused the RNC of trying to suppress votes in New Jersey by posting armed, off-duty police officers at the polls in minority neighborhoods and erecting posters that warned of penalties for violating election laws.

Before the consent decree lifted, “we were really operating with one hand tied behind our back,” Justin Clark, a top Trump campaign official, told an audience earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“In 2020, we have a brand-new opportunity to activate an Election Day operations program that’s really robust,” said Clark, who was elevated last month to serve as Trump’s deputy campaign manager.

During the CPAC session, Clark said the campaign was working to recruit 50,000 volunteer poll watchers. “We are going to have scale this year,” he said. “We’re going to be out there, protecting our vote and our voters.”

Officials with the Trump campaign did not respond to inquiries this week about how many monitors it has added so far.

Common practice

Poll watching is a long-standing practice, and both parties do it.

Observers monitor how ballots are cast, the testing of equipment and counting procedures – looking for irregularities. They also challenge the eligibility of individual voters. And the widespread use of mail-in voting necessitated by the pandemic likely will expand poll watching as observers seek to monitor how election officials handle and count ballots that arrive by mail.

Trump has railed about voter fraud for years. But election experts say in-person fraud is virtually non-existent. (One researcher who examined more than 1 billion ballots cast in general, primary, special and municipal elections over a 14-year period found a miniscule 31 instances of potential voter impersonation.)

Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine’s law school, said the real issue in 2020 is not fraud but the risk that legions of eligible voters could be disenfranchised – as tens of millions navigate voting by mail for the first time.

“They could potentially make technical mistakes that will have their ballots tossed,” he said.

Broad effort

Both parties are gearing up for real-time clashes on Election Day and beyond.

Last month, Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden told supporters that his team planned to deploy 600 lawyers and 10,000 volunteers to combat what he called election “chicanery.”

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has doubled its legal budget to $20 million this year, as part of a sweeping effort to challenge voting laws and policies they view as damaging to Trump’s reelection prospects.

Outside groups also will monitor polling places on Election Day.

Fair Fight, a voting-rights group started by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, has teamed up with 18 state Democratic parties to help fund and train poll watchers and establish hotlines for voters to report problems, spokesman Seth Bringman said.

Officials with True the Vote, a Tea Party offshoot that has faced questions about its past efforts to police voting, say they now are recruiting military veterans to serve as poll watchers through a program called “Continue to Serve.

GOP officials describe a wide array of activities they will undertake as part of their newly invigorated Election Day operations – ranging from challenging voters whose eligibility is suspect to helping turn out the vote through a practice known as “poll flushing.”

Under that process, volunteers monitor which potential supporters haven’t yet voted at their polling place and alert campaign volunteers to mount a last-minute push to get those voters to cast their ballots before polls close.

In tight races, those frenetic, 11th-hour, get-out-the-vote efforts could determine which candidate wins.

In Wisconsin, where Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016 to capture the state’s 10 electoral votes, the state Republican Party has a long-established poll-monitoring operation, state party chairman Andrew Hitt told CNN.

“This year,” he said, “we have the benefit of extra resources and extra manpower coming from the RNC and the (Trump) campaign.”

In Pennsylvania, another key battleground on the road to the White House, Republicans want to overturn the residency requirements for poll monitors, as part of a broad lawsuit that challenges the state’s voting procedures.

GOP officials say the residency rule hampers their ability to bring in volunteers from other parts of the state to monitor voting in Democratic strongholds, such as Philadelphia. As part of the lawsuit, Republicans also want poll watchers to have access to locations where absentee ballots are returned.

The President himself has singled out Philadelphia for allegations of voter fraud.

During the 2016 campaign, for instance, then-candidate Trump said he heard “horror shows” about voting in the city and urged his supporters in the state to “watch other communities because we don’t want this election stolen from us.”

No matter the ultimate size of the GOP’s official poll-watching force, Hasen, the University of California election expert, said he’s worried about where the President’s rhetoric might lead.

“I’m concerned about rogue Trump supporters who might take matters into their own hands and go to polling places with Trump’s claims of fraud and voting problems,” he said.