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Michigan Poll Watchers: Rules and Constraints

This resource details state and federal laws that govern who can be a poll watcher, what they can do, and how election workers can regulate them.

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

Written and Published in Partnership with All Voting is Local

Poll watchers are individuals who monitor polling places and ballot counting sites. While poll watchers play an important role in providing transparency, they can also be a potential source of disruption and intimidation. For this reason, all states have a series of regulations and constraints regarding who can serve as poll watchers and what they can do. Michigan also has a separate position called “election challengers,” who are election observers appointed by political parties and qualified interest groups. Election challengers are distinct from poll watchers and have additional rights and duties that are further discussed here. Michigan’s rules and regulations on poll watchers, which derive both from the state’s election code and from guidance issued by the secretary of state, are:

Appointment

Role of Poll Watchers

  • Poll watchers monitor the election process from a designated public viewing area at a polling place, an early voting site, or an absentee voter ballot processing facility.footnote4_hTDWCtPokbNh4MI Bureau of Elections, The Appointment, Rights, and Duties of Election Challengers and Poll Watchers, 23.
  • The precinct chairperson may allow watchers to look at but not touch the poll book and other election materials as long as this does not delay the voting process.footnote5_nn5VuhhT6cgh5MI Bureau of Elections, The Appointment, Rights, and Duties of Election Challengers and Poll Watchers, 23.

    Prohibited Activities

To prevent poll watchers from disrupting elections, Michigan law prohibits the following activities:

  • Electioneering: It is illegal for anyone, including poll watchers, to campaign within 100 feet of any building entrance used by voters to enter a polling place.footnote6_yWgJg2vtGVnK6Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 168.744, 168.931(1)(j).
  • Voter Intimidation: Michigan law explicitly makes it a crime for anyone, including poll watchers, to threaten or intimidate voters.footnote7_uRWBJ2ak2rl47Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.932(a), (d).

The secretary of state’s guidance further prohibits poll watchers from:

  • Challenging Voter Eligibility: Unlike election challengers, poll watchers do not have the right to challenge a person’s eligibility to vote.footnote8_fXgP41DiaWk88Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.727; MI Bureau of Elections, The Appointment, Rights, and Duties of Election Challengers and Poll Watchers, 24.
  • Taking Photos, Videos, or Audio Recordings: Watchers cannot take videos or photos in the polling place or clerk’s office.footnote9_x6KotWvutzTb9MI Bureau of Elections, The Appointment, Rights, and Duties of Election Challengers and Poll Watchers, 21, 24.
  • Wearing Political Clothing: Poll watchers cannot wear clothing or other paraphernalia with messaging relating to a party, candidate, or proposition on the ballot.footnote10_r4OBcXnieIWK10MI Bureau of Elections, The Appointment, Rights, and Duties of Election Challengers and Poll Watchers, 21, 24.
  • Speaking to Voters: Watchers cannot approach and question voters or offer assistance to voters.footnote11_aw8p9zB7Xlzv11MI Bureau of Elections, The Appointment, Rights, and Duties of Election Challengers and Poll Watchers, 21, 24.
  • Leaving the Designated Public Viewing Area: Poll watchers may not leave the designated viewing area at any election location.footnote12_qrqRKHMdNfmM12MI Bureau of Elections, The Appointment, Rights, and Duties of Election Challengers and Poll Watchers, 24.Additionally, they may not stand behind election inspectors as voters are processed or close enough to the poll books to disrupt election workers.footnote13_cSzOdEjCCNJc13MI Bureau of Elections, The Appointment, Rights, and Duties of Election Challengers and Poll Watchers, 21, 24.

Federal and state law strictly prohibits all people, including observers, from engaging in voter intimidation. Any action that makes a voter feel intimidated, threatened, or coerced (including any effort to prevent a voter from registering to vote, voting, or voting for or against any candidate or ballot measure) could constitute voter intimidation, regardless of whether it breaks a specific rule.footnote14_qm7tEJ7g88h114Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.932(a), (d); 18 U.S.C. §§ 241, 594; 52 U.S.C. § 10101(b).

Removal

  • Michigan’s secretary of state has expressly advised that election inspectors are broadly empowered to remove poll watchers if they break the rules, fail to follow instructions, disrupt the polling place, or threaten or intimidate a voter or election worker.footnote15_hJnMLcSPdkSW15MI Bureau of Elections, The Appointment, Rights, and Duties of Election Challengers and Poll Watchers, 24.
  • If an ejected watcher refuses to leave, the poll worker may request the assistance of law enforcement to remove the poll watcher.footnote16_ysYkp2XK9p3X16MI Bureau of Elections, The Appointment, Rights, and Duties of Election Challengers and Poll Watchers, 24.
  • Any poll watcher who engages in prohibited activities may also face criminal charges.footnote17_eBPDs5l5gnNK17Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 168.744; 168.932(a), (d).

End Notes