Poll watchers have long played a role in ensuring elections operate properly.
The concept, in place for more than a century, is quite basic: Allowing many sets of eyes to keep watch in polling places has generally produced a belief that elections are fair.
However, as the midterm elections approach and partisan groups are pledging to be far more visible and assertive than poll watchers of yore, we can’t be so certain now that the peace will hold.
Early reports of activity by poll watchers in several locations are troubling. In Arizona, groups have been monitoring ballot drop boxes by taking photos of voters and their vehicles. Their actions have prompted complaints of harassment and two lawsuits.
During early primary voting in Arizona’s Pima County in August, officials reported that voters “often felt intimidated and reported individuals for harassing behavior.” Although registered political party poll watchers generally followed the rules, a larger problem arose with “unaffiliated private citizens demanding to gain access to our facilities to observe.” Staffers at some sites reported feeling unsafe.
Amid reports that pro-Trump Republicans are recruiting an army of poll watchers, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department “will not permit voters to be intimidated” during the election.
The first poll watchers appeared in the decades following the Civil War when states replaced political parties in overseeing elections. This is when secret ballots first appeared, along with many rules governing polling stations. Political parties began sending people to these sites to keep eyes on each other and make sure the rules were followed.
The practice has continued ever since, and it’s not just political parties now who send poll watchers. So do individual candidates; the Trump and Biden campaigns both enlisted thousands of poll watchers in 2020, for example. In addition, some states allow organizations and civic groups to appoint poll watchers.
Most states have formal accreditation processes for poll watchers. Party chairs, candidates, and organizations submit names that can require approval by local election officials or secretaries of state.
State laws prohibit poll watchers from interacting directly with voters, although some states allow them to challenge a voter’s eligibility to election officials. State laws also allow poll watchers to observe vote-counting activity.
Other state rules on poll watching vary widely. Most states specify how many poll watchers can be present and what their limitations and privileges are. Many states allow poll watchers to inspect signature rosters.
Although states don’t generally require poll watchers to be trained, they are also expected to know what they can and can’t do. But some states have expanded what they can do.
- In Texas, poll watchers can now stand close enough to “see and hear” voters and election officials’ activity, except for voters casting ballots. They also now have free movement “where election activity is occurring within the location at which the watcher is serving.” Furthermore, election officials may be sued if they obstruct the view of a watcher or “distance the watcher from the activity in a manner that would make observation not reasonably effective.”
- In New Hampshire, a poll watcher can request to “see and hear” the hand counting of ballots — although they cannot be within four feet of the counting.
- In Iowa, an election official can be charged with a serious misdemeanor if they obstruct the view of a poll watcher.
- In Missouri, a new law gives poll watchers broad powers to observe all aspects of vote counting and removes the requirement that poll watchers reside in the designated jurisdiction. In addition, election officials cannot keep these lawfully appointed poll watchers out of polling sites, or they may face a maximum penalty of one year in prison, a fine of $2,500, or both.
Prepare Yourself for Election Day
Most partisan poll watchers — those who are representing political parties, candidates, groups interested in ballot questions, etc. — are aware of the rules. Issues can arise, however, in states that have recently expanded their rules. Still, a bigger problem could arise from groups, like those in Pima County, who believe they have a right to demand access to locations where they can observe voting operations.
There’s no reason to believe that voting will not go smoothly in most precincts. It is still a good idea to understand what the law says about your rights when you go to the polls.
The most important thing to remember is that voter intimidation is illegal under federal law. Intimidation can take a variety of forms, such as verbal harassment, threatening behavior, and blocking entrances.
If you do see or experience voter intimidation, there are several things you can do.
- If you fear imminent violence, call 9-1-1.
- Immediately notify an election official at your polling site.
- Document what you saw or experienced.
- Report the incident to the Election Protection Hotline (1-866-OUR-VOTE), the Justice Department’s Voting Rights Hotline (1-800-253-3931), and your local police.
If you have the right to vote, you also have a right to do it peacefully.
Poll watchers can play a positive role in our elections by ensuring transparency. But concerns are mounting over pledges by some groups to send far more partisan poll watchers to midterm election polling sites.
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