What Do Poll Watchers Do?


It should come as no surprise that this week’s presidential “debate” was rife with misinformation about the upcoming election, including unsupported claims from President Trump about systemic voter fraud by Democrats and poll watchers being “thrown out” of polling places. He went on to urge his supporters to go monitor the polls themselves—a plea he’s made before.

Never mind that there is no compelling evidence for his statements—that’s not how poll watching works. Partisan poll watchers are a legitimate part of the voting process, but they’re not random people who simply wander into your local polling place, nor are they allowed to intimidate you as you cast your ballot.

Each state has its own rules about poll watchers, including how to qualify to be one and how they conduct themselves while at a polling place. Here’s what you need to know.

Poll watchers are partisan

Poll watchers, also called partisan citizen observers, are generally chosen by political parties, and their goal is to make sure their party’s supporters have a fair chance to cast their ballots.

Poll watchers must be appointed

There are regulations to prevent just anyone from showing up to the polls to observe. Depending on the state, poll watchers may be appointed by candidates, a group of candidates, ballot issue committees, or civic organizations. Each state also has its own rules about how many poll watchers can be assigned per candidate, party, and polling location.

In some states, including Georgia, North Dakota, and South Carolina, poll watchers must wear badges bearing their names and appointing organizations.

Poll workers must be registered to vote (in most places)

Additional safeguards to prevent random supporters from flooding polling places include requiring poll watchers to be registered voters. Some states even require observers to be registered in the county or precinct they’re working in.

There are a few exceptions, though. Kansas, for example, allows workers ages 14–17 who aren’t registered voters.

Poll watchers cannot interfere with voters

Poll watchers exist to observe. They can watch how elections are held at polling places and track voter turnout, which may help their party identify and reach out to supporters who haven’t yet cast their ballots. Poll observers in some states can challenge individual voters’ eligibility through an official process, but they cannot block or intimidate these voters, who are generally still allowed to cast provisional ballots.

Poll watching also occurs in states that vote largely by mail. In Washington and Oregon, for example, poll watchers observe the ballot counting process.

Other types of election observers

Partisan poll watchers aren’t the only people observing polling places. Nonpartisan organizations and academic institutions also train people to keep tabs on the integrity of voting processes. There may also be international, nonpartisan student, media, and federal observers at your polling place.

If someone at the polls is preventing you from casting your vote, whether a poll worker or a pool watcher, here’s what to do about it.