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Who Watches the Poll Watchers?

State legislators have introduced at least 40 bills in 20 different states that would expand the powers of poll watchers.

Published: April 29, 2021

Poll watch­ers are indi­vidu­als, often appoin­ted by a candid­ate or by a polit­ical party, who observe the elec­tion process — whether at polling places or as ballots are reviewed and coun­ted. Each state has its own laws on what watch­ers may and may not do, what qual­i­fic­a­tions and train­ing they must have, who can appoint watch­ers, and how many can serve at a given loca­tion.

Because watch­ers may be present when people are voting, most states have meas­ures in place to protect against voter intim­id­a­tion and voter harass­ment (on top of federal voter intim­id­a­tion protec­tions). foot­note1_7cogrdp 1 For example, federal law expressly prohib­its anyone from intim­id­at­ing or harass­ing a voter (or attempt­ing to intim­id­ate or harass a voter) in order to inter­fere with his or her right to vote or vote as he or she chooses. 18 U.S.C. § 594.  For example, some states expressly prohibit watch­ers from inter­act­ing with or assist­ing voters. foot­note2_hc7m08o 2 See e.g., Md. Code, Elec Law § 10–311(d); Va. Code § 24.2–604.4(E).  Others require watch­ers to stay within a certain area of the polling loca­tion. foot­note3_fu15714 3 See e.g., Ark. Code § 7–5–312(e); S.C. Code § 7–13–860.

As of April 15, 2021, state lawmakers have intro­duced at least 40 bills in 20 differ­ent states that would expand the powers of poll watch­ers. foot­note4_j2pymtk 4 AZ SB 1595; FL SB 656; GA HB 531; GA SB 74; GA SB 202; HI HB 853; IA HF 590; IA SF 413; IL HB 3553; LA HB 599; MA HB 816; MD HB 1145; MI SB 276; MI SB 309; MO HB 738; MT SB 93; NH SB 89; NV AB 163; NV AB 248; NY AB 1493; NY SB 1027; OR SB 824; PA SB 322; TX HB 6; TX HB 1128; TX SB 1591; TX HB 2601; TX HB 3107; TX HB 3970; TX HB 4364; TX SB 7; TX SB 598; TX SB 605; TX SB 1215; TX SB 1535; TX SB 1607; TX SB 1608; TX SB 1611; WA HB 1554; WI SB 210. Of those, 12 bills are moving in six states. foot­note5_b5udikw 5 MO HB 738; MT SB 93; NH SB 89; NY SB 1027; TX HB 6; TX HB 1128; TX HB 3107; TX HB 3970; TX HB 4364; TX SB 7; TX SB 598; WI SB 210. “Moving” means the bill is still live and has passed one or both cham­bers or has had some sort of commit­tee action — namely a commit­tee hear­ing (already held or sched­uled), an amend­ment, or a commit­tee vote.  The plur­al­ity of bills intro­duced and currently moving have been filed in Texas. Two bills have been enacted into law (GA SB 202, IA SF 413).

Expan­ded Obser­va­tion Access

At least thirty-three bills have been intro­duced to give watch­ers more author­ity to observe voters and elec­tion offi­cials, with fewer limit­a­tions on their actions at polling places and other loca­tions, increas­ing the possib­il­ity of voter intim­id­a­tion and harass­ment. foot­note6_a0wubkh 6 AZ SB 1595; GA HB 531; GA SB 74; GA SB 202; HI HB 853; LA HB 599; MA HB 816; MD HB 1145; MI SB 309; MT SB 93; NH SB 89; NV AB 163; NV AB 248; NY AB 1493; NY SB 1027; OR SB 824; PA SB 322; TX HB 6; TX HB 1128; TX HB 3107; TX HB 3970; TX HB 4364; TX SB 7; TX SB 598; TX SB 605; TX SB 1215; TX SB 1535; TX SB 1591; TX SB 1607; TX SB 1608; TX SB 1611; WA HB 1554; WI SB 210.  Eleven such bills are moving. foot­note7_c4xj32h 7 MT SB 93; NH SB 89; NY SB 1027; TX HB 6; TX HB 1128; TX HB 3107; TX HB 3970; TX HB 4364; TX SB 7; TX SB 598; WI SB 210.  One bill (GA SB 202) has been enacted into law.

Bills Giving Poll Watch­ers Greater Access in Polling Places

Twelve bills have been intro­duced to expand poll watcher access in polling loca­tions, four of which are moving.

  • LA HB 599 (in commit­tee) allows both candid­ates and polit­ical parties to have watch­ers at every polling place and allows parties to desig­nate a “super watcher” who can serve in every polling place in every parish.
  • MI SB 309 (in commit­tee) estab­lishes certain rights for chal­lengers, includ­ing to be close enough to elec­tion offi­cials to observe the process from a “reas­on­able distance” and to chal­lenge the manner in which elec­tion inspect­ors are perform­ing their duties. foot­note8_isbrly4 8 MI SB 309 includes separ­ate defin­i­tions for “watch­ers” and “chal­lengers,” with “chal­lengers” allowed to serve a similar obser­va­tional func­tion as “watch­ers” do in most states. For simpli­city, we use the term “watcher” here.
  • NV AB 248 (dead) would have required elec­tion offi­cials to accom­mod­ate partisan watch­ers at polling loca­tions and at the test­ing of voting machines.
  • TX HB 6 (repor­ted favor­ably out of commit­tee) gives watch­ers permis­sion to stand close enough to “see and hear” voters and elec­tion offi­cials’ activ­it­ies, except for voters cast­ing a ballot. HB 6 also prohib­its elec­tion offi­cials from remov­ing a watcher from polling loca­tions unless the watcher has engaged in an elec­tion offense.
  • TX HB 1128 (repor­ted favor­ably out of commit­tee) & TX SB 605 (in commit­tee) provide that watch­ers can be presen­ted in all polling loca­tions and wherever ballots are coun­ted.
  • TX SB 7 (passed Senate) requires that watch­ers have “free move­ment” through­out polling loca­tions. The bill gives watch­ers permis­sion to stand close enough to “see and hear” voters and elec­tion offi­cials’ activ­it­ies, includ­ing during curb­side voting, as long as a watcher does not go in the polling booth with the voter.
  • TX SB 1215 (in commit­tee) requires that watch­ers have “free move­ment” in any polling loca­tion in which the watcher is serving.
  • TX SB 1607 (in commit­tee) & TX SB 1608 (in commit­tee) give any watcher at a polling place the abil­ity to inspect each copy of the vote counts at that loca­tion.
  • TX SB 1611 (in commit­tee) gives watch­ers permis­sion to stand close enough to “see and hear” voters’ and elec­tion offi­cials’ activ­it­ies (provided that watch­ers cannot enter the voting booth), and prevents watch­ers from being denied “free move­ment” at polling places.
  • WI SB 210 (passed Senate) requires watch­ers to be within three feet of where voters check in at polling places and three feet from any table where a voter may register to vote, whether at a polling place or other­wise. SB 210 also requires watch­ers have access to all stages of the voting process.

Bill Allow­ing Poll Watch­ers to Enter Vehicle to Observe Voting

One bill, TX SB 1591, has been intro­duced that would allow watch­ers to enter the car in which curb­side voters are voting if there is more than one voter in the car and the car can accom­mod­ate more than five passen­gers.

Bills Expand­ing Watcher Access in Ballot Count­ing Loca­tions and Other Sites

Thirty bills have been intro­duced to give watch­ers greater access to the ballot count­ing process, ballot processing activ­it­ies (e.g., signa­ture veri­fic­a­tion, notice and cure, ballot drop off, ballot hand­ling and processing), and voting data processing. Eleven bills are moving, and one bill was enacted into law (GA SB 202).

  • AZ SB 1595 (dead) would have allowed watch­ers to be present when ballots require adju­dic­a­tion (e.g., if the voter’s choice for a partic­u­lar elec­tion is not imme­di­ately clear) within a close enough distance for the watcher to observe any mark­ings and determ­in­a­tions.
  • GA HB 531 (dead), as intro­duced, would have mandated that watch­ers be able to fairly observe the tabu­la­tion of ballots and requires the candid­ate, polit­ical party, or polit­ical group that appoin­ted the watcher to provide train­ing to all watch­ers.
  • GA SB 74 (dead) would have given poll watch­ers full access to tabu­la­tion centers and limited the abil­ity of offi­cials to restrict watch­ers’ move­ments or activ­it­ies.
  • GA SB 202 (enacted) mandates that watch­ers be able to fairly observe proced­ures at ballot tabu­la­tion centers.
  • HI HB 853 (dead) would have required watch­ers to be present wherever ballots are being handled or coun­ted.
  • LA HB 599 (in commit­tee) prohib­its watch­ers from being removed from a ballot count­ing loca­tion until all ballots are coun­ted, even if the count­ing process has to be put on hold because of tech­nical issues or unfore­seen inter­rup­tions.
  • MA HB 816 (in commit­tee) requires that two watch­ers from differ­ent polit­ical parties over­see the count­ing of absentee and early ballots, verify voters’ signa­tures, and verify the final vote count.
  • MD HB 1145 (dead) would have allowed candid­ates or party commit­tees to inspect and chal­lenge absentee ballot signa­tures.
  • MT SB 93 (passed both cham­bers) gives watch­ers permis­sion to be present at all ballot drop-off loca­tions.
  • NH SB 89 (passed Senate) gives watch­ers the right to observe the processes of open­ing ballot envel­opes and review­ing voter affi­davits.
  • NV AB 163 (dead) would have mandated that no offi­cial could deny access to any person who wants to observe the count­ing proced­ure. It would have removed a stat­utory provi­sion that allows for removal if a person is inter­fer­ing with ballot processing.
  • NV AB 248 (dead) would have required elec­tion offi­cials to accom­mod­ate partisan watch­ers at polling loca­tions, cent­ral vote count­ing loca­tions, and cent­ral ballot receiv­ing loca­tions.
  • NY SB 1027 (passed Senate) & NY AB 1493 (in commit­tee) allow watch­ers to be present at meet­ings where absentee ballots are being processed.
  • OR SB 824 (in commit­tee) requires that elec­tion offi­cials permit watch­ers to be present when absentee ballots are prin­ted and placed in envel­opes to be mailed to voters.
  • PA SB 322 (in commit­tee) allows watch­ers to be within at least six feet of “pre-canvassing” proceed­ings, as long as they do not impede the pre-canvassing process.
  • TX HB 6 (repor­ted favor­ably out of commit­tee) allows watch­ers to observe voters deliv­er­ing absentee ballots when return­ing their ballots in person, includ­ing how voters deliver ballots and how elec­tion offi­cials make decisions about the deliv­ery of ballots. The bill also allows watch­ers to observe the count­ing of votes and the seal­ing and trans­fer of memory stor­age devices used in voting equip­ment (e.g., memory cards, flash drives, etc.).
  • TX HB 1128 (repor­ted favor­ably out of commit­tee) & TX SB 605 (in commit­tee) provide that watch­ers can be presen­ted wherever ballots are coun­ted.
  • TX HB 3107 (commit­tee hear­ing held) allows watch­ers to be present to observe the formal veri­fic­a­tion of voters’ signa­tures on absentee ballots.
  • TX HB 3970 (commit­tee hear­ing held) allows watch­ers to observe the process by which elec­tion offi­cials receive and open absentee ballots and to observe how elec­tion offi­cials decide to accept an absentee ballot.
  • TX HB 4364 (public hear­ing sched­uled) gives watch­ers permis­sion to observe meet­ings of signa­ture veri­fic­a­tion commit­tees. It also allows watch­ers to observe the seal­ing and trans­fer of memory stor­age devices used in voting equip­ment (e.g., memory cards, flash drives, etc.).
  • TX SB 7 (passed Senate) & TX SB 1611 (in commit­tee) require that watch­ers have “free move­ment” in any loca­tion where they serve and give watch­ers permis­sion to stand close enough to “see and hear” elec­tion offi­cials’ activ­it­ies.
  • TX SB 598 (passed Senate) requires that an audit be conduc­ted after select statewide elec­tions and gives watch­ers the right to be present for the audit proced­ures.
  • TX SB 1215 (in commit­tee) requires that watch­ers have “free move­ment” through­out polling loca­tions and ballot count­ing loca­tions, or any other loca­tion where they are serving.
  • TX SB 1535 (in commit­tee) gives watch­ers the right to observe the signa­ture veri­fic­a­tion process; creates a process to notify voters of signa­ture issues with absentee ballots and an oppor­tun­ity to cure; and allows watch­ers to observe this “notice and cure” process.
  • TX SB 1591 (in commit­tee) allows watch­ers to be near enough to elec­tion offi­cials to observe the formal veri­fic­a­tion of voters’ signa­tures on absentee ballots.
  • WA HB 1554 (in commit­tee) requires that watch­ers be allowed to observe all elec­tion audit processes, includ­ing the locat­ing of ballots at precincts and the sort­ing and count­ing of ballots. 
     
  • WI SB 210 (passed Senate) requires watch­ers have access to all stages of elec­tion process, includ­ing the canvassing of absentee ballots.

Record­ing

Nine bills have been intro­duced — one of which is moving (TX SB 7) — to allow watch­ers to take photo­graphs or video, includ­ing of voters, or that estab­lish other means of record­ing voting and elec­tion processes.

  • IL HB 3553 (in commit­tee) requires that all poll watch­ers wear body cameras.
  • MI SB 276 (in commit­tee) allows watch­ers to record the tabu­la­tion of votes while making it a misde­meanor to impede watch­ers from record­ing the vote tabu­la­tion process and making it a misde­meanor for watch­ers to photo­graph or record a voter enter­ing, leav­ing, or voting at a polling place or a voter’s iden­ti­fic­a­tion.
  • MI SB 309 (in commit­tee) allows watch­ers to use elec­tronic devices such as smart­phones at polling places and ballot count­ing loca­tions, as long as the watcher does not inter­fere with a voter’s right to vote or to vote a secret ballot.
  • TX HB 2601 (in commit­tee) gives watch­ers author­ity to take pictures and record video within polling loca­tions, includ­ing of voters, as long as watch­ers do not record someone in the process of voting or if the record­ing infringes on the secrecy of the voter’s ballot.
  • TX SB 7 (passed Senate) elim­in­ates the prohib­i­tion on poll watch­ers possess­ing devices to record sound and images. SB 7 also gives watch­ers author­ity to take photos and record video at polling loca­tions and allows watch­ers to record a voter whom the watcher believes is receiv­ing unlaw­ful voting assist­ance, as long as the watcher does not record the voter’s ballot. Finally, SB 7 allows watch­ers to submit photos, video, or audio record­ings of activ­ity they believe to be unlaw­ful to the secret­ary of state, who must then send the mater­ial to the attor­ney general upon request.
  • TX SB 1535 (in commit­tee) allows watch­ers to record video or audio while ballots are being coun­ted, despite a general prohib­i­tion against record­ing video or audio.
  • TX SB 1591 (in commit­tee), TX SB 1607 (in commit­tee) & TX SB 1611 (in commit­tee) remove the ban on watch­ers carry­ing active record­ing devices with them in polling places or elec­tion loca­tions, and permit a watcher to record voters so long as the watcher reas­on­ably believes a voter is receiv­ing unlaw­ful assist­ance and so long as the watcher does not capture the voter’s ballot.

Crim­inal Penal­ties

Nine bills have been intro­duced that estab­lish crim­inal penal­ties for obstruct­ing watch­ers or refus­ing to allow watch­ers entry into a polling loca­tion or other elec­tion loca­tion. Three of these bills are moving (TX HB 6, TX HB 4364, and TX SB 7), and one has been enacted into law (IA SF 413).

  • IA SF 413 (enacted into law) makes it a crim­inal offense for an elec­tion offi­cial to obstruct a watch­er’s activ­it­ies.
  • IA HF 590 (dead) would have made it a crim­inal offense for an elec­tion offi­cial to obstruct a watch­er’s activ­it­ies.
  • TX HB 6 (repor­ted favor­ably out of commit­tee) makes it a crim­inal offense for an elec­tion offi­cial to distance or obstruct the view of a watcher if it makes the watch­er’s obser­va­tion inef­fect­ive, or to refuse to accept the required service of a watcher at a polling loca­tion or count­ing loca­tion.
  • TX HB 4364 (public hear­ing sched­uled) makes it a misde­meanor for an elec­tion offi­cial to inten­tion­ally or know­ingly refuse to accept the required service of a watcher in a polling loca­tion or count­ing loca­tion.
  • TX SB 7 (passed Senate) makes it a crim­inal offense for an elec­tion offi­cial to distance or obstruct the view of a watcher if it makes the watch­er’s obser­va­tion inef­fect­ive. SB 7 also makes it a misde­meanor for an elec­tion offi­cial to refuse to accept the required service of a watcher in a polling loca­tion or count­ing loca­tion. Finally, SB 7 allows watch­ers to file suit seek­ing an injunc­tion to obtain access to a polling loca­tion or ballot count­ing or processing loca­tion.
  • TX SB 1215 (in commit­tee) makes it a misde­meanor for an elec­tion offi­cial to refuse to accept the required service of a watcher in a polling loca­tion or count­ing loca­tion.
  • TX SB 1591 (in commit­tee) makes it a state jail felony, instead of a misde­meanor, to obstruct or distance a watcher from elec­tion activ­it­ies. It estab­lishes that the enforce­ment of social distan­cing is not a defense.
  • TX SB 1607 (in commit­tee) & TX SB 1611 (in commit­tee) make it a crim­inal offense to distance or obstruct a watcher if it makes the watch­er’s obser­va­tion inef­fect­ive.

Watcher Resid­ency Require­ments

Five bills have been intro­duced, one of which (MO HB 738) is moving, that loosen a resid­ency require­ment to be a watcher.

  • FL SB 656 (in commit­tee) allows watch­ers to serve outside of their county of resid­ence if they are a registered Flor­ida voter and member of the Flor­ida Bar.
     
  • MO HB 738 (passed House) elim­in­ates the require­ment that a watcher reside in the desig­nated juris­dic­tion.
  • TX SB 1535 (in commit­tee) elim­in­ates the require­ment that watch­ers must be a resid­ent of the precinct where they will serve. It replaces that restric­tion with a require­ment that the watcher be a registered voter of the territ­ory served by a polling place or other site.
  • TX SB 1607 (in commit­tee) & TX SB 1611 (in commit­tee) remove the require­ment that a watcher has to be a qual­i­fied voter of the county where they are serving, leav­ing only the require­ment that the watcher be a qual­i­fied voter of the state.

Other: Police Pres­ence

Two bills have been intro­duced in Texas (TX SB 1607 & TX SB 1608) that would allow poll watch­ers to request a trained peace officer at a polling loca­tion to enforce elec­tion laws or prevent an elec­tion law viol­a­tion.

End Notes