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Pennsylvania: Protections Against Intimidation of Voters and Election Workers

This resource details state and federal laws protecting against the intimidation of voters and election workers and the disruption of the voting process.

Last Updated: June 26, 2024
Published: October 28, 2022
View the entire Laws Protecting Voters and Election Workers from Intimidation series

Voters in Pennsylvania have the right to vote free from intimidation under federal and state law.footnote1_zBo4e5Hh8qVX1See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. §§ 594, 241; 52 U.S.C. § 10101(b); 25 Pa. Stat. §§ 3547(a)–(b), 3527, 3528. The federal protections that apply to all states are explained here. The following actions are specifically prohibited by Pennsylvania law:

  • Using or threatening to use force or violence to compel any person to vote or refrain from voting, to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate or question, or to register or refrain from registering to vote.footnote2_uRjh2u7AuSd5225 Pa. Stat. § 3547(a); see also 25 Pa. Stat. §§ 3527, 3528.
  • Interfering with the ability of any elector to vote through duress, coercion, force, or fraud.footnote3_gQisxccFrpty325 Pa. Stat. § 3547(b).
  • Blocking or attempting to block the entrance or exit of any polling place.footnote4_leOajCgzdbWq425 Pa. Stat. § 3527.

In addition, the Pennsylvania Department of State specifies that intimidation includes “disseminating false or misleading election information, including information on voting eligibility, polling place procedures, polling place hours, or voting methods.”footnote5_ducMsH4aa16w5Pennsylvania Department of State, Guidance Concerning Poll Watchers and Authorized Representatives, October 5, 2022, https://www.vote.pa.gov/Your-Rights/Pages/Poll-Watchers.aspx.

The below addresses the laws that serve as guardrails against specific threats of intimidation.

Voter Challenges

Although Pennsylvania permits any qualified voter, election official, overseer, or poll watcher to challenge another voter’s eligibility,footnote6_oevh7MVetEuX625 Pa. Stat. §§ 1329(a), 3050(d). state law also provides for some guardrails:

  • Challenges must be in good faith and may only be brought regarding a voter’s identity or residency.footnote7_vyuiEi22LKST7Pennsylvania Department of State, Guidance on Rules in Effect at the Polling Place on Election Day, October 2016, 4–5, https://www.dos.pa.gov/votingelections/otherservicesevents/documents/dos%20guidance%20on%20rules%20in%20effect%20at%20the%20polling%20place%20on%20election%20day%2010–16.pdf. Thus, challenges based at all on race, national origin, appearance, surname, language, religion, or some other characteristic unrelated to the qualifications to vote are not permitted.footnote8_vXjpOKEPP1oZ8Pennsylvania Department of State, “Guidance Concerning Poll Watchers and Authorized Representatives,” October 5, 2022, https://www.vote.pa.gov/Your-Rights/Pages/Poll-Watchers.aspx.
  • Challenges must be directed to the judge of elections, who shall determine if the challenge is based on actual evidence and if there is a good-faith basis to believe the challenged person is not qualified to vote.footnote9_uw7qMZoEyjIK9Pennsylvania Department of State, “Guidance Concerning Poll Watchers and Authorized Representatives,” 2022. In determining the qualifications of electors, the judge of elections must “impartially and faithfully perform [his or her] duties,” as required by the oath taken before each election.footnote10_grOSZMqxm6v81025 Pa. Stat. § 2677.
  • Judges of elections are prohibited from allowing “routine or frivolous challenges that are not supported by a stated good faith basis and evidence that a person is or may not be eligible.”footnote11_pPWbalmeBm1c11Pennsylvania Department of State, “Guidance Concerning Poll Watchers and Authorized Representatives,” 2022.
  • A voter may not be refused a regular ballot unless the election officials of the precinct are satisfied that the challenger has properly proven the voter’s ineligibility with sufficient evidence.footnote12_t9Zf4vXFlQJu12Pennsylvania Department of State, “Guidance Concerning Poll Watchers and Authorized Representatives,” 2022.

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) provides additional safeguards to protect voters from mass challenges before an election:

  • The NVRA expressly recognizes that National Change of Address information is not sufficient on its own to serve as the basis for canceling a voter’s registration.footnote13_mN8QLKGGkT3p1352 U.S.C. § 20507(c)(1)(B).
  • The NVRA prohibits the systematic removal of voters from the rolls within 90 days of a federal election.footnote14_ehgn6PngMc7D1452 U.S.C. § 20507(c)(2)(A).

The Brennan Center and All Voting Is Local published a detailed resource on the limits on voter eligibility challenges in Pennsylvania here.

Intimidation of Poll Workers and Election Officials

In addition to federal protections against the intimidation of election workers, it is a crime in Pennsylvania to prevent or attempt to prevent any election official from holding the election, interfere with the execution of their duties, or use or threaten any violence against an election official.footnote15_bAjcXobSmq9A1525 Pa. Stat. § 3527. It is illegal for any person, including an election official, to refuse to permit any election official, clerk, or machine inspector to perform their duties or to threaten violence against any such person.footnote16_ueroVaRFaxqZ1625 P.S. Elections & Electoral Districts § 3508.

Voter Intimidation by Poll Workers

The Brennan Center and All Voting is Local published a detailed resource on the rules and constraints for Pennsylvania poll workers here.

Intimidation by Poll Watchers

In addition to Pennsylvania’s intimidation laws detailed above, state law places limits on who may serve as poll watchers and what they may and may not do:

  • Watchers must be a qualified registered elector of the county in which they are appointed to serve.footnote17_bZA8waYV9qUb1725 Pa. Stat. § 2687(b).
  • Each candidate may appoint two poll watchers per electoral district in which he or she is on the ballot, and each political party that has nominated candidates on the ballot may appoint three poll watchers for each district in which those candidates will appear on the ballot.footnote18_qW9mjpvb7lGl1825 Pa. Stat. § 2687(a).
  • Watchers can keep a list of voters and make good-faith challenges against any voter’s identity or residency. When no voters are present at a polling place, watchers can also inspect the voting checklist and the list of voters maintained by the county board; however, they may only do so under the supervision of a poll worker.footnote19_o84bp0Jyx2iP1925 Pa. Stat. § 2687(b).
  • Watchers may not engage in certain activities, including speaking directly to or threatening voters, asking voters for documentation, or blocking a polling place entrance.footnote20_m5skqWvvYCX620Pennsylvania Department of State, “Guidance Concerning Poll Watchers and Authorized Representatives,” 2022.
  • Watchers must show their certificate from the county board of elections stating their name and the name of the candidate or party they represent upon request.footnote21_lP2tvH5qrmoe21Pennsylvania Department of State, “Guidance Concerning Poll Watchers and Authorized Representatives,” 2022.

Judges of elections must remove watchers who are engaging in prohibited activities.footnote22_m64rvDlh10ko22Pennsylvania Department of State, “Guidance Concerning Poll Watchers and Authorized Representatives,” 2022.

The Brennan Center and All Voting Is Local published a detailed resource on the rules and constraints on Pennsylvania poll watchers here.

State and Local Law Enforcement

Although on-duty law enforcement officers are generally prohibited from being within 100 feet of a polling place, they may be called upon by election officials or any three qualified electors of an election district to handle disturbances and maintain order.footnote23_aKe9jbPR4E6D2325 Pa. Stat. § 3047.

Guns at Polling Places

Pennsylvania law prohibits carrying weapons, including guns, in a number of places that are commonly used as polling places and drop box locations, such as schools and courthouses.footnote24_sXuzP5pbFymA2418 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. §§ 912, 913.

Even at locations where firearms are not expressly prohibited, firearm carry may constitute unlawful intimidation. Such conduct may consist of carrying a visible firearm near a polling

location or at a drop box or vote-counting site, displaying a concealed firearm during a discussion or argument with a voter or election worker, or approaching a voter or election worker while displaying a firearm.

Door-to-Door Intimidation

Pennsylvania law and federal law prohibit canvassing efforts that are used to intimidate voters.footnote25_x3Sc7tFmV85U2518 U.S.C. §§ 594, 241; 25 Pa. Stat. §§ 3547(a)–(b). Any voter who receives a visit from a privately organized canvassing group does not have to answer any questions and should report any incidents of intimidation to their local officials. Additionally, it is a misdemeanor in Pennsylvania to impersonate a public official.footnote26_wnnkWmiPKctP2618 Pa. Stat. § 4912.

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