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Who Is Watching the Poll Watchers?

Numerous state bills have been introduced that could roll back safeguards against voter harassment and intimidation.

May 4, 2021

It’s been six months since the presidential election, and Trump’s slander against the election is still corroding our democracy.

As Rep. Liz Cheney, the House Republican whip, tweeted, “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.”

Unfortunately, Trump’s baseless claim has become a litmus test for Republicans. It’s tragic. Those who spoke out against Trump’s lies are facing consequences. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who called for Trump to resign after the January 6 insurrection and voted to convict him of inciting it, will face a primary challenger in 2022. Cheney has faced calls to step down from her leadership role in the House.

It’s not hyperbole to say that, because of Trump’s Big Lie, free and fair elections are under withering fire. The foundation of our democracy is being tested by a conspiracy theory. This is apparent in the over 360 bills moving through states that would make voting harder. And among those are 40 bills in 20 different states that would expand the powers of poll watchers.

This might seem innocuous. However, in these polarized times, it’s anything but. Republicans across the nation want to weaponize something that should be nonpartisan and strictly regulated.

Poll watchers are individuals who observe the election process — both at polling places and as ballots are reviewed and counted. Each state has its own laws on what watchers may and may not do, what qualifications and training they must have, who can appoint watchers, and how many can serve at a given location.

Most states have measures in place to protect against voter intimidation and harassment, but 33 of the recently introduced bills would give poll watchers more authority to observe voters and election officials, with fewer limitations on their actions. In Michigan, the New York Times reports, the Republican-controlled legislature wants to ban nonpartisan poll watchers in favor of party hacks.

What, you ask, could go wrong?

Additionally, 30 bills have been introduced to give poll watchers greater access to the ballot counting process, ballot processing activities, and voting data processing. Eleven of these bills are moving, and one, in Georgia, has already become law. Our new resource, “Who Watches the Poll Watchers?” describes these bills and their threat to our democracy.

Violence and intimidation at the polls are not exactly new. They were far too common throughout much of the country’s history. All across the country, partisans would brawl, and Black and immigrant voters would be driven away. (Recall that William Rehnquist’s confirmation for the Supreme Court was roiled over reports that he had gone up to Latino voters in Arizona, purporting to do ballot security, but actually trying to intimidate them.) But over the past half century or so, this bad habit actually largely went away. It has not been a widespread factor in our elections.

These proposals risk bringing back this ugly aspect of America’s past.

There’s no good reason to subject citizens exercising their constitutional right to vote to possible harassment and intimidation. We knew the damage caused by Trump and his Big Lie would last beyond the election. But it’s disheartening, to say the least, to watch it become a uniting factor and driver of policy for one of our country’s major political parties.

Our democracy deserves better.