Poll watchers are a part of every Erie County election. Here's why they do it

Just before 7 a.m. Tuesday, Micah Goring stood outside the Erie County Courthouse, waiting to be let in.

The Fairview Township resident made sure he arrived early for his shift as a first-time poll watcher for the Erie County Republican Party. Goring and three other poll watchers were assigned to the pre-canvassing room, where mail-in ballots were being counted.

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Micah Goring, 44, takes notes during his poll watcher shift at the Erie County Courthouse, 140 W. Sixth St. in Erie, on Nov. 8, 2022.

"I think it’s good to have people here just to have eyeballs on it," Goring, 44, said. "I (wasn't) expecting to catch anyone doing anything. This office is pretty professional and they seem to be fairly open."

Poll watchers, sometimes referred to as election observers, observe and monitor the election without violating voter privacy or disrupting the election.

More than 240 certified poll watchers from the Democratic and Republican parties observed Tuesday's municipal election across Erie County, said Julie Slomski, the county's clerk of elections.

Asked if there were significant issues at Erie County polling places on Tuesday, Slomski said: "Thankfully, none at all."

According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent, bipartisan commission established by 2002’s Help America Vote Act, each state has its own laws and procedures on when and where observers can be present, as well as who can observe the election.

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What it takes to be a poll watcher

In Pennsylvania, a poll watcher must be a qualified registered elector of the county where the election district/polling place) is located for which the watcher is appointed, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections in the Commonwealth.

The poll watcher must receive official county credentials in advance and be authorized to work at specific precincts.

In the aftermath of the contentious 2020 presidential election, which highlighted the polarized political landscape nationwide, there has been increased interest in monitoring election results and security among individuals, special interest groups and nonpartisan organizations.

For example, The Carter Center — founded in 1982 by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife. Rosalynn in Atlanta — was asked by election officials in Georgia to monitor Tuesday’s elections in Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold that includes Atlanta.

The organization observes often contentious and even violent elections worldwide with the goal of advancing and preserving democracy. Fulton County was a frequent target of former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged.

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The midterms mark the first time that The Carter Center, which has observed more than 110 elections in nearly 40 countries since 1989, has monitored a U.S. election.

“I think the fact that world monitoring organizations are taking sight of what’s happening in the United States should be a concern to everyone,” Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Wertz said. “Because we’ve seen consistent attacks recently on our governmental institutions in general and elections in particular.”

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Jim Wertz, the chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party.

Accountability on the job

Wertz said the local Democratic Party had roughly 60 poll watchers certified and trained for work at Erie County polling sites on Tuesday.

"The Democratic Party’s position is that we are there to advocate for all voters and make sure no one is disenfranchised," Wertz said. "That’s why poll watchers are important."

Erie County Republican Committee Chairman Tom Eddy is shown on Tuesday during the midterm elections outside the Millcreek 24th District polling place at Church of the Cross in Millcreek Township, Erie County.

Tom Eddy, Erie County Republican Party chairman, said the local GOP's poll watchers weren't there to cause trouble or intimidate voters.

"Poll watchers are there just to observe, and that’s all they can really do," Eddy said. "They are not allowed to interfere at all."

Eddy said the local Republican Party had roughly 160 poll watchers certified and trained for work at Erie County polling sites on Tuesday. That number, Eddy said, "is a lot more than we usually have".

Eddy thinks the increased interest in poll watching is related to the 2020 presidential election.

"I think overall, a large portion of the public thought, 'I’m going to do my part this year to make sure as much as I can that everything looks good,'" Eddy said. "And that’s a positive thing because I think the more people out there watching the polls, the better they’ll feel about the election."

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Pollwatcher Micah Goring

Goring's interest in poll watching stems from his recent involvement with the local GOP and civics in general.

"We live in a country where we claim to be self-governing, so I need to be involved in that and stop being such a lazy schmuck and assuming that someone else is going to do all of it," he said.

Following the COVID-19 lockdowns and mask mandates, Goring ― who works from home as a freelance writer for local marketing companies ― decided he was done standing on the sidelines and letting others make decisions that didn't align with his values or those of his family.

Micah Goring, of Fairview Township, is shown outside the Erie County Republican Party Headquarters, 1600 Peninsula Drive in Erie, on Oct. 31, 2022. Goring, 44, is a first-time poll watcher for the local GOP.

"The people who care about the issues should be the ones who have the influence over the politicians, and not the big donors," Goring said. "It’s an ant climbing a mountain, but I figure if enough ants climb, we can make a difference."

In May's primary, Goring was elected as the Republican regional chair for mid-county, overseeing Edinboro, Fairview, Franklin, McKean and Washington Township. Volunteering to become a poll watcher this midterm election was just another way for him to do his civic duty, he said.

"Americans are self-governing people and we ― conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats ― all need to be involved in this," Goring said. "I figure with more eyes on (the election), the safer it’ll be."

For Goring, the purpose of poll watching is making sure nobody tries to cheat, because, "nobody likes cheating in elections except for the people who stand to benefit from it."

"If you follow the rules you, can’t be intimidated," he said. "Voting is not just a right but a privilege to do. If you’re going to let someone in khakis and a button-up shirt intimidate you from going to vote, then you need to cowboy up a little."

Pollwatcher Jason Lavery

In addition to watching out for cheaters, as Goring describes it, Jason Lavery, 40, keeps an eye on Election Day activity in general. 

Lavery has worked since 2018 as a Democratic poll watcher at the voting precinct located at First Alliance Church, 2939 Zimmerly Road. His wife, Nicole Lavery, 42, is also a poll watcher there.

Millcreek Township resident Jason Lavery, 40, seen here outside the polling place at First Alliance Church, 2939 Zimmerly Road, has worked as a Democratic poll watcher since 2018.

“The way I explain it to people, every district or ward has a male or female working the polls, representing the party’s interests,” said Lavery, a Millcreek Township resident and the president and founding brewer of Erie's Lavery Brewing Co.

“We’re either appointed by the party or a specific candidate. We make sure nothing nefarious is happening at the polls and that people aren’t turned away. We make sure people are given provisional ballots if they need one."

“Not a lot happens,” Lavery said,” But we’re there to make sure nothing bad happens and people aren’t being disenfranchised. You’re basically there to be an advocate for voters.”

Lavery said he also helps the local Democratic Party keep track of how many people vote at the polling site and how many votes specific candidates received.

“It’s very civil, and the poll workers are always encouraging,” Lavery said. “I view it as my civic duty and I’m happy to help.”

Pollwatchers Elizabeth Sorrentino, Gretchen Fairley

Elizabeth Sorrentino, a longtime poll watcher for the county Republican Party, has enjoyed a deep involvement with politics in two countries. 

A native of England, Sorrentino, 80, began volunteering with the local GOP shortly after moving to Erie with her husband, Gene Sorrentino, in 1995. 

“In England I was a Conservative. I was the (chairwoman) of the young Conservatives in my area in my twenties,” said Sorrentino, a retired electrical substation operator and electrician who grew up near London.

“My husband was born and raised in Erie. We lived in California for years but he wanted to move back here,” Sorrentino said. “When we did, I found the number one day for the local Republican Party. 

“I called and they were having a brown-bag lunch meeting the next day, so we went. And I’ve been with them ever since.”

Elizabeth Sorrentino, 80, is a native of England and a naturalized U.S. citizen who has worked as volunteer poll watcher for the Erie County Republican Party for more than two decades.  Sorrentino lives in Girard.

Sorrentino, who lives in Girard, eventually became an elected Republican committeewoman in western Erie County. That led to poll watcher work; she has worked May primaries and November elections since 1997 at the Girard Township Building, 10140 Ridge Road.

Sometimes the shift is four or five hours, Sorrentino said; sometimes, she’s at the polling site all day. 

“And I don’t wear anything that points out my party affiliation,” she said.

Sorrentino described the job of a poll watcher as “being there to give people information about candidates outside the polling place. I sit inside when it’s asked of me. If a voter tells me they had a problem, I go inside and talk to the judge of elections. I’ve been there so long, everyone knows who I am, including the voters, the judge of elections and all the election workers.”

Most elections run smoothly, she said.

“One time a person’s relative was trying to vote in two locations, so we reported that,” Sorrentino said. “Mostly, though, people have concerns about machines recording their votes correctly, or if a machine is down, they might have to vote on a paper ballot. I don’t work in a troublesome location or a place where people are harassed.”

Asked why she continues to work as a poll watcher, Sorrentino said: “It’s a job that I committed to. And it’s necessary. We have the right to walk through and not (interfere) with the process, but to make sure that everything is being handled properly. I’m there to make sure your vote is counted.”

Democratic poll watcher Gretchen Fairley, 57, monitored the polling place at the Salvation Army Community Center, 1020 Liberty St., on Tuesday.

Fairley, the development associate at the Erie field office of the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, sees poll watching is a way to make a difference.

"People should have the right to vote and have access to a free and fair election," Fairley said, "so this is my contribution."

Facts about poll watchers in Pennsylvania

  • A poll watcher must be a registered voter in the county where the election he/she watches is taking place, must receive official county credentials in advance, and must be assigned to specific precincts. 
  • There are limits on the number of poll watchers that can serve in each election district/polling place.
  • Poll watchers must remain outside the enclosed space of the polling place, and they can be in the polling place from the time election officers meet prior to the opening of the polls until the time that the counting of votes is complete. Poll watchers may be permitted to inspect the voting checklist and numbered lists of voters, but only when voters are not present in the polling place either voting or waiting to vote.
  • Poll watchers cannot make challenges to an elector's identity, continued residence in the election district, or qualifications as an eligible voter based on race, national origin, appearance, surname, language, religion or other characteristics not relevant to the qualifications to vote. They also cannot engage in electioneering while inside the polling place or within 10 feet of the entrance to the polling place. Electioneering includes soliciting votes, posting or displaying written or printed campaign materials, and handing out pamphlets or other campaign paraphernalia. 
  • Poll watchers cannot engage, attempt to influence, or intimidate voters or engage in voter intimidation, which is illegal under federal and Pennsylvania law.

Source: Pennsylvania Department of State

Contact Kevin Flowers at kflowers@timesnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ETNflowers.

Baylee DeMuth can be reached at 814-450-3425 or bdemuth@timesnews.com. Follow her on Twitter@BayleeDeMuth.