HomeLearning CenterHow Poll Watchers Can Help or Hinder Fair Elections

How Poll Watchers Can Help or Hinder Fair Elections

Originally published by Andrew Garber for Brennan Center for Justice

Poll watchers, also referred to as election observers, are individuals — usually volunteers — who are not election workers but are allowed to be in election spaces to monitor the election process. These observations occur both at polling places where voters cast ballots and locations where workers review and count ballots.

What are the benefits of poll watchers?

Poll watchers play an important role in ensuring that our elections are free and fair by providing transparency and monitoring to make sure that the rules are followed. They have, at times, been instruments of progress. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, watchers were able to monitor elections to help realize the law’s promise of rooting out voting discrimination in places that still sought to suppress Black voters.

What risks do poll watchers pose?

For all the benefits poll watchers can provide, their access to spaces and records that are otherwise off-limits to the public creates a risk of abuse. Additional concerns include voter intimidation, harassment of election workers, the spread of disinformation, and coordinated efforts to undermine elections.

There have been incidents in recent elections in which watchers harassed and intimidated voters. For example, a watcher in Texas’s 2020 elections accused a voter of not looking like a U.S. citizen and demanded to see their ID. And during the 2022 early voting period in Arizona’s Pima County, watchers complained loudly about “fraudulent elections” and repeatedly tried to view private voter data.

Watchers have also subjected poll workers and election officials to intimidation and harassment. In 2022, a Texas poll watcher carrying a gun followed election officials into a ballot-counting location. Since a 2021 state law gave watchers more leeway, election officials received “tons of complaints that poll watchers were intrusive, and voters felt intimidated because the poll watcher would come and stand behind them as they are voting.” The watchers in Arizona’s Pima County who intimidated voters in 2022 also took photos of election administrators, which resulted in those officials reporting “feelings of intimidation, harassment, and general uncomfortableness.” A North Carolina watcher in 2022 followed an election worker carrying ballot boxes from precincts to the worker’s car on multiple occasions.

Intimidation by poll watchers or observers can take many forms: trying to view personal voter information or announcing that information out loud, challenging voters, taking photos or videos, or invading voters’ personal space. All these types of actions can make voters or election workers fear for their safety or privacy.

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