In recent months, media reports have tracked a troubling new threat to our democracy: proponents of the Big Lie that the 2020 election was “stolen” have formed a so-called “election integrity network” aimed at gaining control over election administration in battleground states.
At the heart of this network lies an effort to recruit and train election deniers as poll workers. In gatherings held across the country, network speakers have outlined combative strategies for poll workers to challenge voters and question routine election processes. These tactics have already filtered down to the local level, where party officials and even one candidate have encouraged aspiring poll workers to break local election rules.
To be clear, most people who sign up to be poll workers do so in a good-faith effort to serve their communities. Our elections rely on their hard work, which can range from setting up polling places and checking in voters to distributing ballots and operating voting equipment. But with these responsibilities comes a clear mandate: poll workers must serve in an impartial, lawful, and nondisruptive manner. If left unchecked, poll workers who violate this mandate and follow the network’s instructions could interfere with and intimidate voters, make improper voter challenges, breach election security systems, or engage in other forms of lawbreaking in November.
Fortunately, states already have checks in place to ensure that those who seek to undermine elections cannot qualify as poll workers and disrupt election processes. In partnership with All Voting is Local, the Brennan Center has detailed these existing legal safeguards in a series of 11 state-by-state guides. And while the rules and constraints differ in certain respects from state to state, our guides highlight many common themes.
For example, checks on disruptive poll workers begin well before they set foot in a polling place. Before appointing poll workers, local election officials in each of our 11 states must review every applicant to confirm that they meet the state’s specific eligibility requirements. In many instances, these requirements strive for an equal balance of poll workers from both major political parties. Once appointed, state laws require poll workers to complete comprehensive training courses to ensure they are well versed in local, state, and federal election rules before serving in an election.
After completing training requirements and before entering the polling place, poll workers in these states perform an additional, critical step: taking a signed oath to uphold the law and faithfully execute their duties on Election Day. And while election officials cannot exclude poll workers based solely on their personal or political beliefs, these oaths of office provide a mechanism for officials to screen out as ineligible those individuals who demonstrate they are unwilling to set aside their beliefs to follow the law and lawful instructions.
Once poll workers reach the polling place, the checks intensify. Well-established federal and state laws prohibit poll workers from intimidating or harassing voters. Prohibited intimidation can include, for example, using insulting, offensive, or threatening language or raising one’s voice at a voter. States similarly prohibit poll workers from providing false information to a voter to prevent that person from voting, including false information about who can vote, how and when they can vote, and other aspects of the election process. And when poll workers handle sensitive voting equipment and data, state laws strictly proscribe both tampering with voting equipment and knowingly allowing others to do so. Poll workers who engage in any of these prohibited activities may violate their oath of office, be removed by their local election officials, and face civil and criminal penalties.
While the process for challenging voters’ eligibility varies across the 11 states, they generally fall into one of three categories when delineating poll workers’ role. First, some states provide no substantive role for poll workers in the challenge process. Second, others prohibit poll workers from making challenges and instead require teams of poll workers to rule on challenges pursuant to procedures and limitations set out by statute. Or they permit poll workers to challenge voters based only on limited grounds (and subject to penalties for making groundless or frivolous challenges). Regardless of the specific challenge process in place, the states generally require poll workers to provide a provisional ballot to any challenged person who affirms they are qualified to vote.
Beyond these constraints, state laws set forth clear rules for how and when poll workers must work with each other. For example, poll workers seldom complete tasks in a vacuum. Instead, many states require that poll workers complete certain tasks — such as assisting voters or opening voting machines — in two-person, bipartisan teams to ensure impartiality and fairness. State laws also create clear command structures among poll workers so that a streamlined reporting process exists if problems arise. In many instances, poll workers report to a “chief” poll worker who receives additional training and instruction, and that chief poll worker then acts as a liaison to report issues to local and state election officials.
Although efforts to recruit and train rogue poll workers present a novel threat, our guides demonstrate that states are already well-equipped to combat it. By activating these safeguards, election officials can ensure that elections run smoothly and remain free from disruptions in November.