By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a blow to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, a U.S. judge on Thursday upheld a Pennsylvania state law that could make it difficult for his supporters to monitor Election Day activity in Democratic-leaning areas.
Trump has repeatedly said Tuesday's presidential election may be rigged, and has urged supporters to keep an eye out for signs of voting fraud in Philadelphia and other heavily Democratic areas.
Democrats worry that could encourage Trump supporters to harass Hispanics, African-Americans and other minority voters in a state that could determine whether Trump or his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, wins the presidency.
Democrats have launched a legal blitz of their own in an attempt to shut down Trump's poll-watching efforts in Pennsylvania and three other battleground states, arguing in lawsuits that Republican monitoring efforts amount to "vigilante voter intimidation" that violates federal law.
Democrats are also trying to stop the Republican National Committee from supporting the poll-watching efforts of the Trump campaign or state parties. Those cases have not yet been resolved.
The RNC has said in legal motions that it is not involved in poll watching, which would violate a long-standing court order. State parties have argued that they are engaged in legitimate efforts to make sure the election is conducted accurately.
In Pennsylvania, Trump's poll-monitoring plan faces a significant hurdle because state law requires partisan poll watchers to perform their duties in the county in which they are registered to vote.
That could make it difficult to recruit monitors in places like Philadelphia, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of eight to one. The city has 120,000 registered Republicans and 1,685 voting locations.
The Pennsylvania Republican Party sought to suspend that requirement so that poll monitors could come from anywhere in the state, which would enable them to bring in supporters from suburban and rural areas where Trump has stronger support.
But U.S. District Judge Gerald Pappert denied the request, writing that it would be too disruptive to change the law less than a week before Tuesday's vote.
"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," he wrote.
The Republican Party of Pennsylvania did not respond to a request for comment.
With early voting underway, civil rights advocates say they are already receiving reports of intimidation and harassment. "We are seeing an uptick in the number of complaints compared to 2012," said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a watchdog group.
Palm Beach County, Florida, plans to station law enforcement officers at an early-voting site through Election Day after fielding complaints about bullhorn-wielding Trump supporters getting too close, according to ProPublica.
In legal filings, Democrats allege that a Trump supporter in Clark County, Nevada yelled at voters and tried to block them from entering an early-voting site. They also charge that several Republican poll watchers have told their Democratic counterparts that they are working for the RNC, in violation of a 1981 agreement that limits the national organization's monitoring efforts.
The Nevada Republican Party sent a message on Thursday reminding poll monitors that their job is to "quietly and respectfully observe the democratic process in action."
That appeared to be the message in southern Ohio as well, where Trump supporter Becky Covey said the observers she had recruited were told not to interfere with voting activity.
"People think they're going to be a watchdog, but that's not their job," Covey said.
(Additional reporting by Emily Flitter in Portsmouth, Ohio; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)