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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_cn2ww8k 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_o9jtbkh 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), https://sos.iowa.gov/elections/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), https://www.dos.pa.gov/VotingElections/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_11n7w6j 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_zydornu 9 Ohio Rev. Code § 3505–20. and Texas footnote10_irmb6ji 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_sc379pz 11 Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 16–590. Michigan, footnote12_qyasgde 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), https://www.michigan.gov/documents/SOS_ED_2_CHALLENGERS_77017_7.pdf. Montana, footnote13_wqtq884 13 Mont. Code § 13–13–120(1). and New Mexico. footnote14_sj3unnw 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_kf9ks6b 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_88stoxs 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), https://www.michigan.gov/documents/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_sy61k24 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_fm902ab 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_s0ci6s7 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_t8jlyf9 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_wjhr2tq 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), https://www.michigan.gov/documents/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_so9cc6q 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_en821dx 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