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Texas 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

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. Texas’s derive from the state’s election code. Resources from the Texas secretary of state’s Elections Division, such as the Poll Watcher’s Guide and the Election Day Poll Watcher Information Sheet, provide guidance as well. The regulations and constraints are:

Appointment

  • Poll watchers must be appointed by one of the following:
    • A candidate or write-in candidate for a political party office or any public office other than vice president of the United States.footnote1_dWExkpUemOyU1Tex. Elec. Code § 33.002(a). In most cases, a candidate’s campaign treasurer may act as a proxy and appoint poll watchers on the candidate’s behalf. For more on candidate appointments by proxy, see Tex. Elec. Code § 33.002(b)-(c). Groups of registered voters may also appoint poll watchers on behalf of write-in candidates if they meet the criteria in Tex. Elec. Code § 33.004.
    • The county chair of any political party that has a least one nominee on the ballot.footnote2_mb9248HVpRsY2Tex. Elec. Code § 33.003(a).If the county chair does not make an appointment, any three members of the county executive committee may make the appointment.footnote3_yKKRyVLxgdZo3Tex. Elec. Code § 33.003(b).
    • The campaign treasurer or assistant campaign treasurer of a ballot measure committee.footnote4_ucDWSfHMaKJJ4Tex. Elec. Code § 33.005(a). This provision does not apply to committees for referendum measures submitted in a primary election. Tex. Elec. Code § 33.005(b).
  • Appointers must issue a certificate of appointment to each poll watcher they appoint; otherwise the appointment is invalid.footnote5_jrEjGk6b0EPv5Tex. Elec. Code § 33.006(a). Certificates of appointment must meet the requirements of Tex. Elec. Code § 33.006(b), all of which are provided for in the secretary of state’s certificate of appointment forms. See Texas Secretary of State, Election Form 4–26: “Certificate of Appointment of Poll Watcher by a Candidate,” https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/forms/pol-sub/4–26f.pdf, Form 4–27: “Certificate of Appointment of Poll Watcher by a Political Party,” https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/forms/pol-sub/4–27f.pdf, Form 4–28: “Certificate of Appointment of Poll Watcher For Propositions or Measures,” https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/forms/pol-sub/4–28f.pdf, and Form 4–29: “Certificate of Appointment of Poll Watcher by Registered Voters on Behalf of a Write-In Candidate,” https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/forms/pol-sub/4–29f.pdf, all revised September 2023.
  • Each appointer can appoint a maximum of two poll watchers for each polling place and seven poll watchers for each early voting place, but no more than two of those seven appointees may be on duty at any given time.footnote6_g5cAbfzem3Eq6Tex. Elec. Code § 33.007(a)-(b).
  • Poll watchers may be appointed only for a precinct within the county where they are registered to vote.footnote7_evPNzSXQJtaL7Tex. Elec. Code § 33.031(a).They do not need to be registered at their appointed precinct.footnote8_oh5Mi6uvXrXa8Tex. Elec. Code § 33.031(a); TX Secretary of State, Elections Division, Poll Watcher’s Guide, revised August 2023, 3, https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/forms/pollwatchers-guide.pdf.
  • Candidates for office, public officeholders, and people convicted of an election-related offense may not serve as poll watchers.footnote9_tpQl1w1Tpgni9Tex. Elec. Code §§ 33.032, 33.034–33.035.
  • Appointees must complete the secretary of state’s training program.footnote10_pZlxq7QjGB7B10Tex. Elec. Code § 33.031(b).

Role of Poll Watchers

  • Poll watchers observe the conduct of the election, without causing disruption, on behalf of whoever appointed them.footnote11_eOwJL98BRwT311Tex. Elec. Code §§ 33.001, 33.0015.
  • Poll watchers report any suspected irregularity or violation to election officers.footnote12_ewtTXNthFNJw12Tex. Elec. Code §§ 33.0015, 33.058(b).
  • Poll watchers wear IDs provided to them by the election officer who checks them in.footnote13_xeyLvJI7qgFD13Tex. Elec. Code. § 33.051(f).
  • Poll watchers are entitled to take notes and observe “any activity” conducted at the location where they are serving, except they may not be present at a voting booth while a voter is preparing a ballot.footnote14_kVydVBT5Egoo14Tex. Elec. Code §§ 33.056(a), (d); 33.057(b).
  • Poll watchers may inspect returns and other records prepared by election officers at their location.footnote15_zSliPu2FJaaP15Tex. Elec. Code § 33.056(c).

Prohibited Activities

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

  • Voter Interaction: Poll watchers may not communicate with voters for any reason.footnote16_g2PKD8qi9Wf316Tex. Elec. Code § 33.058(a)(2)-(3).
  • Election Officer Interaction: Poll watchers may not converse with an election officer regarding the election, unless they are calling attention to an irregularity or violation.footnote17_ctEzLmKknzbt17Tex. Elec. Code § 33.058(a)(1). Additionally, subsection (b) provides that if a poll watcher calls a potential irregularity or violation to the attention of a subordinate election officer, and the subordinate refers the poll watcher to the presiding officer, the poll watcher may not discuss the matter further with the subordinate unless invited to do so by the presiding officer.
  • Disruption and Harassment: Upon being checked in by an election officer, poll watchers must take an oath to neither disrupt the voting process nor harass voters.footnote18_dAhlsFMxZjrU18Tex. Elec. Code § 33.051(h).
  • Using Devices: Poll watchers must deactivate any device in their possession that is capable or recording images or sound.footnote19_youcj8HKh8gG19Tex. Elec. Code § 33.006(b)(6).

Additionally, guidance from the secretary of state advises that poll watchers are prohibited from the following:

  • Electioneering: No one, including poll watchers, may electioneer within 100 feet of an entrance to a polling place during voting hours, including early voting hours.footnote20_oJ7lWjo8qtdt20Tex. Elec. Code §§ 61.003(a), 85.036(a).Electioneering includes the posting, use, or distribution of political signs or materials.footnote21_v2u2dqoJFvfV21Tex. Elec. Code § 61.003(b)(1).
  • Voter Intimidation: Alongside federal prohibitions against voter intimidation, the secretary of state has affirmed that voters have the right to vote in secret and free from intimidation.footnote22_obXfY6CpiMiz22Tex. Elec. Code § 62.0115(b)(2); 52 U.S.C. § 10101(b); TX Secretary of State, Election Form 7–36: “Voter Information,” revised September 2023, https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/forms/pol-sub/7–36f.pdf.

Federal law strictly prohibit all people, including poll watchers, 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.footnote23_jdAP18GLPQFb2318 U.S.C. §§ 241, 594; 52 U.S.C. § 10101(b).

Removal

  • The presiding judge of a polling place may remove poll watchers for violating the state’s Penal Code. Additionally, the judge may remove a poll watcher for violating the Election Code or another provision of law provided that the judge or an election worker observed the conduct constituting the violation.footnote24_vZrS0oSyeGfq24Tex. Elec. Code § 32.075(g).
  • The presiding judge may call a law enforcement officer to remove a poll watcher but should use sound judgment in deciding whether doing so is necessary.footnote25_tXqG9yyHpH2h25Tex. Elec. Code § 32.075(h).
  • Presiding judges and election workers should exercise caution in assessing whether to expel a poll watcher, however, as they are subject to criminal penalties for unlawfully obstructing a watcher.footnote26_aHJLAjKnnsJ226Tex. Elec. Code § 33.061.
  • Texas law empowers the presiding judge of each precinct to preserve order, prevent breaches of the peace, and prevent violations of the election code.footnote27_dtPXgDerD5jf27Tex. Elec. Code § 32.075(a).They may issue arrest warrants to fulfill those duties.footnote28_gPdQgrjr3cGv28Tex. Elec. Code § 32.075(c).

End Notes