In an apparent move to embarrass the United States over Donald Trump's claims of a "rigged" presidential election, Russia sought to send monitors to U.S. polling stations for the Nov. 8 vote, Russian media revealed Thursday.
The bid was sharply rebuffed by the State Department, and one state election official threatened criminal action if Russian monitors showed up, according to state-controlled Izvestia daily and broadcaster RT.
State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner called the Russian effort a "PR stunt" and denied that the United States blocked Russian diplomats from observing the election.
A spokeswoman for Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, who received a request to allow Russian monitors, called it a "propaganda ploy."
"We've allowed observers from overseas in the past from other countries, never from Russia," Meg Casper said. She added that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security also "told us not to do this."
Trump, who is behind in most polls, has complained for weeks about potential election fraud. In Wednesday night's debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton, the Republican nominee refused to say whether he would abide by the results on Election Day.
On Thursday, he said he will "totally accept the results — if I win."
Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, have become prominent issues in the U.S. campaign and were mentioned during Wednesday's debate for allegedly interfering in the election.
U.S. intelligence officials say Russia is behind a series of computer hacks that leaked embarrassing emails from the Democratic National Committee and top Clinton campaign staffers. Trump was skeptical about Russia's role in the leaks and deflected Clinton's charge that he is an admirer of Putin and overlooks the Russian leader's alleged meddling in the election and other anti-U.S. positions.
The United States often sends monitors to observe elections in other countries with a history of voter fraud.
Izvestia said Russia made the request for monitors in the U.S. during talks with the State Department and was "categorically rejected."
Russia was invited to participate in routine monitoring conducted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in which Russia is a member, but the level of access was unacceptable to the Russians, according broadcaster RT.
The European group said it will observe the U.S. election with a delegation of 439 people from 10 countries deployed nationwide. The delegation includes at least one Russian.
Toner noted that U.S. officials participated in a similar observation mission for Russia's parliamentary elections in September.
Russian officials also sought access on the state level in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Izvestia said Russia was turned down in "harsh" terms.
Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos wrote a Sept. 28 letter to Alexander Zakharov, Russia's consul general in Houston, that "only persons authorized by law may be inside of a polling location during voting. All other persons are not authorized and would be committing a Class C misdemeanor crime by entering."
Cascos offered to discuss the voting process with Zakharov or his representatives, or to set up a meeting with local election officials, according to a copy of the letter his office provided to USA TODAY.
Louisiana Secretary of State Schedler declined the Russian request in a genial manner, according to a copy of an Aug. 26 letter sent to Zakharov. Schedler explained that his office in Baton Rouge sustained heavy damage from a massive flood that left him short-staffed.
"Had this flood event not occurred, we certainly would have been open to such a visit, but I cannot meet such a request with the situation I currently have in front of me," Schedler wrote. He urged Zakharov to contact him in 2020 if he's still interested.
Oklahoma Secretary of State Chris Benge turned down the request, citing Oklahoma law. "While it would be our honor to offer the opportunity to observe our voting process, it is prohibited under state law to allow anyone except election officials and voters in or around the area where the voting takes place," Benge wrote.
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