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Limits on Observers and Challengers at the Polls

In order to prevent election interference, numerous state laws control who can be poll watchers and what they can do.

Published: October 12, 2020

Despite the pres­id­ent’s recent call for volun­teers to “watch closely” at the polls, indi­vidu­als cannot just show up and wreak havoc in polling places.

Of course, federal law prohib­its discrim­in­a­tion and intim­id­a­tion at the polls. foot­note1_glzn1fk 1 18 U.S.C. § 594. Voter intim­id­a­tion of any kind is a crime, and prohib­i­tions on intim­id­a­tion apply equally to poll watch­ers and chal­lengers.

But even beyond these baseline rules, nearly every state has laws designed to curb aggress­ive beha­vior by poll watch­ers and chal­lengers, includ­ing limits on how many watch­ers or chal­lengers are permit­ted, who can serve in these roles, processes for appoint­ment, and restric­tions on conduct.

Not every­one can simply show up to be a poll watcher; becom­ing a poll watcher is an involved process in most battle­ground states.

  • In nearly every battle­ground state — Arizona, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Iowa, New Mexico, North Caro­lina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas — poll watch­ers must be appoin­ted in advance of the elec­tion by party or candid­ate repres­ent­at­ives. foot­note2_ac86ij9 2 Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 16–590; Fla. Stat. § 101.131; Ga. Code § 21–2–408; Iowa Code § 49.104; Ia. Sec’y of State, Poll Watch­ers Guide (Jan. 2018),­tions/pdf/poll­watch­er­guide­book.pdf; N.M. Stat. § 1–2–27(A); N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 163–45; Ohio Rev. Code § 3505.21; 25 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2687(a); Pa. Dep’t of State, Guid­ance on Rules in Effect at the Polling Place on Elec­tion Day at 1 (Oct. 2016),­tions/OtherSer­vice­sEv­ents/Docu­ments/DOS%20GUID­ANCE%20ON%20RULES%20IN%20EF­FECT%20AT%20THE%20POLLING%20PLACE%20ON%20ELEC­TION%20DAY%2010–16.pdf; Ohio Rev. Code § 3505.21(C); Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 33.003–33.005.
  • All nine of these battle­ground states affirm­at­ively require watch­ers to provide some form of writ­ten confirm­a­tion of their appoint­ment to offi­cials, either prior to the voting period or when they arrive at voting loca­tions. foot­note3_a40u534 3 Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 16–590(A); Fla. Stat. § 101.131; Ga. Code § 21–2–408; Iowa Code § 49.104; N.M. Stat. § 1–2–29; N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45(b); Ohio Rev. Code § 3505–21; 25 Pa. Stat. § 2687; Tex. Elec. Code § 33.051(a).

Many states limit how many watch­ers can be at the polls and what they can do.

States limit who can chal­lenge a voter’s eligib­il­ity, and how.

  • Nearly half of all states either do not author­ize members of the general public to serve as chal­lengers at the polls (e.g., Ohio foot­note9_8z9kajm 9 Ohio Rev. Code § 3505–20. and Texas foot­note10_ddajef6 10 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 33.001; Tex. Elec. Code § 16.091. ) or restrict the number of people who can serve as chal­lengers inside the voting space ­— includ­ing battle­grounds like Arizona, foot­note11_809s63a 11 Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 16–590. Michigan, foot­note12_8q3qbam 12 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.730; Mich. Dep’t of State Bureau of Elec­tions, The Appoint­ment, Rights and Duties of Elec­tion Chal­lengers and Poll Watch­ers at 6 (Sept. 2020),­ments/SOS_ED_2_CHAL­LENGERS_77017_7.pdf. Montana, foot­note13_8lx2obu 13 Mont. Code § 13–13–120(1). and New Mexico. foot­note14_h7y683m 14 N.M. Stat § 1–2–25 (A)(6), (B).
  • In states like Flor­ida, Nevada, and North Caro­lina, only elect­ors from the specific precinct or county may mount a chal­lenge, limit­ing the risk of disrup­tion from outsiders. foot­note15_58wg5jt 15 Fla. Stat. §§ 101.111, 101.131; Nev. Rev. Stat. § 293.303; N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–87.
  • In Michigan, chal­lengers must be specific­ally appoin­ted and carry creden­tials veri­fy­ing their appoint­ment. foot­note16_7hjf51y 16 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.730; Mich. Dep’t of State Bureau of Elec­tions, The Appoint­ment, Rights and Duties of Elec­tion Chal­lengers and Poll Watch­ers at 4–5 (Sept. 2020),­ments/SOS_ED_2_CHAL­LENGERS_77017_7.pdf.
  • Ohio, Flor­ida, and New Mexico expli­citly bar law enforce­ment officers from serving as chal­lengers (or poll watch­ers, for that matter). foot­note17_85wqntz 17 Ohio Rev. Code § 3505.21(B); Fla. Stat. § 101.131(3); N.M. Stat. § 1–2–22(D).

States strictly regu­late the conduct of chal­lengers at the polls.

  • Key battle­grounds like Pennsylvania, Flor­ida, and Geor­gia (among other states) require chal­lenges to be made by a writ­ten sworn oath. foot­note18_o29rh89 18 Colo. Rev. Stat. § 1–9–202; Fla. Stat. § 101.111; Ga. Code § 21–2–230; Ind. Code § 3–11–8–20; N.H. Rev. Stat. § 659:27; N.J. Stat. § 19:15–18.2; Or. Rev. Stat. § 254.415; 25 P.S. § 1329.
  • North Caro­lina and Montana require specific docu­ment­ary evid­ence to sustain a chal­lenge. foot­note19_w65iqa2 19 Mont. Code § 13–13–301(1) & Mont. Admin. R. 44.3.2109(2); N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–90.1(b).
  • Several states strictly limit the grounds on which a chal­lenger can lodge a chal­lenge against the voter. foot­note20_u2b8hxc 20 Ark. Code § 7–5–312; Haw. Rev. Stat. § 11–25; Md. Code, Elec. Law § 10–312(a)(1); 17 R.I. Gen. Laws § 17–19–27; Vt. Stat. tit. 17, § 2564.
  • Geor­gia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mary­land, and Nevada expressly permit elec­tion offi­cials to remove watch­ers or chal­lengers who inter­fere with the voting process. foot­note21_64r7fkh 21 Ga. Code § 21–2–408(d); Ky. Rev. Stat. § 117.318(1); Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.730; Mich. Dep’t of State Bureau of Elec­tions, The Appoint­ment, Rights and Duties of Elec­tion Chal­lengers and Poll Watch­ers at 5 (Sept. 2020),­ments/SOS_ED_2_CHAL­LENGERS_77017_7.pdf; Md. Code, Elec. Law § 10–311(d)(2); Nev. Admin. Code § 293.245.
  • Flor­ida and Montana have rules to discour­age spuri­ous chal­lenges, with Flor­ida crim­in­al­iz­ing “frivol­ous” chal­lenges foot­note22_9heuqfk 22 Fla. Stat. § 101.111(2). and Montana giving elec­tion offi­cials the power to reject chal­lenges they deem insuf­fi­cient before asking the chal­lenged voter to respond. foot­note23_j77hux5 23 Mont. Code § 13–13–301(3).

With all of these regu­la­tions in place, and with local elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors actively prepar­ing and coordin­at­ing with state and federal offi­cials to keep voters safe, voters should not let fear­mon­ger­ing from the pres­id­ent, or anyone else, discour­age them from cast­ing their ballots.

End Notes