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How Poll Watchers Can Help or Hinder Fair Elections

Observers can bring transparency to the elections process, but clear guidelines are needed to prevent abuse.

Published: June 26, 2024
View the entire Poll Watchers Rules and Constraints series

Poll watchers, also referred to as election observers, are individuals — usually volunteers — who are not election workers but are allowed to be in election spaces to monitor the election process. These observations occur both at polling places where voters cast ballots and locations where workers review and count ballots.

What are the benefits of poll watchers?

Poll watchers play an important role in ensuring that our elections are free and fair by providing transparency and monitoring to make sure that the rules are followed. They have, at times, been instruments of progress. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, watchers were able to monitor elections to help realize the law’s promise of rooting out voting discrimination in places that still sought to suppress Black voters.

What risks do poll watchers pose?

For all the benefits poll watchers can provide, their access to spaces and records that are otherwise off-limits to the public creates a risk of abuse. Additional concerns include voter intimidation, harassment of election workers, the spread of disinformation, and coordinated efforts to undermine elections.

There have been incidents in recent elections in which watchers harassed and intimidated voters. For example, a watcher in Texas’s 2020 elections accused a voter of not looking like a U.S. citizen and demanded to see their ID. And during the 2022 early voting period in Arizona’s Pima County, watchers complained loudly about “fraudulent elections” and repeatedly tried to view private voter data.

Watchers have also subjected poll workers and election officials to intimidation and harassment. In 2022, a Texas poll watcher carrying a gun followed election officials into a ballot-counting location. Since a 2021 state law gave watchers more leeway, election officials received “tons of complaints that poll watchers were intrusive, and voters felt intimidated because the poll watcher would come and stand behind them as they are voting.” The watchers in Arizona’s Pima County who intimidated voters in 2022 also took photos of election administrators, which resulted in those officials reporting “feelings of intimidation, harassment, and general uncomfortableness.” A North Carolina watcher in 2022 followed an election worker carrying ballot boxes from precincts to the worker’s car on multiple occasions.

Intimidation by poll watchers or observers can take many forms: trying to view personal voter information or announcing that information out loud, challenging voters, taking photos or videos, or invading voters’ personal space. All these types of actions can make voters or election workers fear for their safety or privacy.

Abusive behavior by poll watchers can disrupt election administration. In 2022, election workers in Wayne County, North Carolina, had to move watchers who stood between voters and voting machines. The county’s election director was forced to intervene by phone and said she and her precinct officials had to “babysit[]” watchers who objected to “every little thing” workers did. Elsewhere in North Carolina the same year, watchers threatened to sue poll workers who did not grant the watchers access that they wanted. Such confrontations distract poll workers and election officials from the intensive work necessary to keep elections running smoothly.

Even apparently minor disruptions can cause major headaches for election workers, especially in the aggregate. Constant requests to view pollbooks and voter lists and repeated claims of witnessing nonexistent fraud can force election workers to pause their other work. In turn, voters suffer delays.

Further, watchers have used their proximity to voting processes to sow disinformation about elections, whether inadvertently or intentionally. A poll watcher in Michigan in 2020 alleged that workers were not allowing her to observe ballot counting. The claim crumbled under the slightest scrutiny, and a lawsuit arising out of it was kicked out of court. Other watchers in Detroit that year claimed that officials did not let them observe ballot counting, but in reality, the counting facility had reached capacity after being occupied by watchers from both parties. Those intent on undermining our elections claim they “witnessed” fraud firsthand, creating fodder for conspiracy theories. Spreading such lies can confuse voters, motivate laws that make it harder to vote, and inspire more poll watchers to intimidate and harass voters in the quest for shaky evidence of fraud.

How could poll watchers endanger the 2024 election?

In addition to the recent history of growing abuses by watchers, there are several reasons for concern about watcher misconduct in 2024.

First, popular political candidates, including one major party’s presidential candidate, have called on people to watch the polls. Donald Trump, who in 2020 urged his “supporters to go the polls and watch very carefully,” recently told his supporters to “go into” Philadelphia, Detroit, and Atlanta and “guard the vote.”

Second, after politicians exploited the disputes in 2020 around poll watchers to spread disinformation, several states enacted laws to remove guardrails on watchers. A vague 2021 Texas law makes it a crime for poll workers to “take any action” that would render watchers’ observation “not reasonably effective.” In the trial for a suit challenging the statute, election officials said they “don’t really understand what . . . to do as a result” of the law. Its vagueness and the threat of criminal penalties have resulted in election workers not enforcing protections or even quitting.

Florida and North Carolina recently changed their laws to grant watchers additional access. The Florida law has already led to an increase in watchers and subsequent challenges to voter eligibility.

Third, other prominent election deniers are encouraging citizens to serve as poll watchers. Former Trump lawyer and Election Integrity Network leader Cleta Mitchell — who famously joined Trump on a phone call asking Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” the votes necessary to secure Trump’s victory — has hosted workshops in swing states encouraging individuals to serve as poll watchers. She reportedly told former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, who likewise has been calling on listeners to his show to monitor elections, that she is “arming the army of patriots.”

Similarly, the Republican National Committee has announced plans to mobilize poll watchers, reportedly aiming to recruit 100,000 poll watchers in 13 states this year. Between rallying calls from candidates and other public figures, as well as new laws in some states that give watchers additional freedom, it is likely that some poll watchers will engage in antidemocratic behavior in the 2024 election.

What protections exist against misconduct by poll watchers?

Every state has a range of limits on who can be a poll watcher and what they can do while serving in that role. Notably, federal and state laws make it illegal for watchers to engage in intimidation against voters or election workers. But this is far from the only limitation.

First, many states require watchers to wear identification badges. Wisconsin’s laws on watcher identification, for example, are comprehensive: they must give their name, address, and appointing authority (if any) in an observer log, present photo identification, and wear a badge reading “Election Observer” at all times. Badges make clear who is a watcher — and therefore entitled to certain privileges — versus who should not be at the polls for activities besides voting. Having someone’s name and affiliation visible prevents unauthorized watchers and creates accountability for bad behavior, as poll workers can quickly know the identity of rule breakers.

Second, laws commonly require watchers to take oaths attesting that they understand the rules. For instance, Ohio law requires observers to swear to follow the law, not delay anyone from voting, and not reveal how anyone has voted. Administering a written or oral oath to watchers before their shift begins guarantees that all watchers know actions they may and may not take, as well as the penalties for violating the rules, thus minimizing problems born out of confusion.

Third, most states prohibit watchers from interacting with voters. For example, Georgia’s election code has both a broad ban on watchers interfering with the conduct of the election and more specific prohibitions on watchers talking to voters. Other states go further and restrict watchers to a designated area. Virginia generally requires them to sit behind the check-in table, while Michigan calls for local clerks to designate a viewing area based on the layout of the polling place. These types of rules prevent watchers from hearing confidential voter information or potentially seeing voted ballots. Such rules also help prevent voter intimidation and conflicts between watchers and voters.

Fourth, watchers generally have limited access to election materials. While watchers in some states may view pollbooks, they are often only allowed to do so when voters are not present or for a limited number of times over the course of the day. North Carolina permits watchers to look at lists of people who have voted only at times set by the state board of elections, with a minimum of three observances required. Wisconsin prohibits observers from seeing registration forms, proof of residence documents, or observer logs; while it allows them to see the nonconfidential portions of poll lists, it gives the chief inspector of the polling place sole discretion to deny requests that would delay or disrupt the election.

Fifth, most states ban watchers from taking photos, recording videos, or capturing audio inside the polling place. These restrictions prevent another avenue for voter or worker intimidation, protect confidential information, and ensure that watchers cannot use edited videos, photos, or audio to misrepresent what happened in a polling place.

Finally, in most states, local election officials and local law enforcement can remove watchers from election sites when they are disruptive, harassing, or discriminatory. One partial exception to this rule is in Texas; its 2021 law change does not allow precinct officials to remove watchers for violations of the election code unless the presiding official personally observed the violation or the violation is a criminal offense. Election workers can be criminally prosecuted for wrongfully removing a watcher, which empowers watchers to push the envelope with limited concern that election workers will remove them for it.

What can I do if I see a poll watcher breaking the rules?

The vast majority of voters will have seamless experiences. Many voters may not even notice if any watchers are present. If you are hassled by a watcher, see a watcher hassle other voters or election workers, or witness a watcher break your state’s rules, you can alert a poll worker or local election officials or call the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE. Eligible voters should remain confident in their right to vote as well as their right to utilize services available in their state, such as voter assistance, curbside voting, and accessible ballots.

Can officials do more to protect voters?

Election officials should put out clear guidance on what constitutes intimidation or interference by watchers and what steps workers can take to address it. Many state chief election officials already release guides, but it is essential that these guides prepare poll workers for dealing with rule-breaking watchers instead of just repeating the rules.

Guidance governing watchers should make clear that watchers may be intimidating voters even if they aren’t breaking specific rules: federal law defines intimidation to include anything that has the effect of intimidating a voter or any threats or coercions to someone attempting to vote. Pennsylvania’s guide helpfully makes plain that any activity that intends to or has the effect of intimidating voters inside or outside the polling place is illegal. It also gives examples of improper actions, such as giving voters false information or asking voters for documentation. North Carolina’s board of elections published guidance in December 2023 that listed acceptable and prohibited observer behaviors along with examples.

States that ban guns at polling places should make that explicit in their guides. States without a ban in place can state in their guides that watchers who openly carry firearms are likely to intimidate voters. Arizona’s guide, for example, notes both that state law prohibits guns at polling places and that openly carrying a firearm near the polls is likely to result in voter intimidation.

These guides should also empower workers to the full extent of the law to remedy bad watcher behavior, from initial steps workers should take to try to correct the watchers to how to remove aggressive watchers safely.

Additionally, poll workers should have the power to regulate the location of watchers and determine what spaces allow for meaningful, unobtrusive observation. Watchers need to be reasonably close to check-in tables to do their jobs effectively. Every polling place, however, has a different layout, and the distance that works in one location may be too cramped or too far in another.

Similarly, there should be clear protest steps watchers can take with election officials if they feel they are not being granted meaningful observation of the election process. The final call, however, should always rest with election workers and officials, not the watchers.

Finally, watchers should not be permitted to bring voter challenges, which is when a person contests someone’s voter eligibility. While this would require legislative changes in some states, it would help protect against intimidation and the appearance of election interference, particularly where watchers are partisan appointees.

Connie Wu and Catherine Silvestri provided editing and support for this explainer and the state guides.