The NCSL Blog


By Katy Owens-Hubler

It’s election season again—and a presidential election no less—so everyone has seen the ubiquitous photo of a polling place recently.

Election observersOften, the photo is of a couple of voters standing in front of a voting booth or voting machine, taken from a respectful distance so as not to infringe on the secrecy of their ballot.

Media are generally allowed to be in polling places as long as they follow a set of rules—not getting too close to voters and not zooming in on an individual ballot, for example.

Who else is permitted to be in polling places to observe the voting process? Poll workers and election officials are there, of course. But most states also permit election observers—often appointed by a political party or individual candidate—to be in the polling place.

In other countries it is common to have nonpartisan groups, such as academics or nonprofits, observe elections as well. There may also be international observers present. The observations made by these groups can enhance the integrity of the election in a transitioning democracy.

In this country, with small exceptions, we usually accept the results of U.S. elections and trust that the process has been fair. Yet impartial observation of the election process can help strengthen the electoral process and institutions in the U.S., too.

The Carter Center, in collaboration with NCSL, is embarking on a project to examine the laws governing observability of U.S. elections. Elections in the U.S. are highly decentralized, with most aspects of election administration taking place at the state, county or even municipal level. Thus the laws governing election observers vary greatly from state to state.

The project will study current laws about election observation in the states in order to provide a comparative perspective. Some of the questions that the project will look at may be helpful for lawmakers to consider as well:

  • Who is permitted to observe the election process and to be in the polling place in your state? Is it limited to poll watchers designated by the party or an individual candidate, or is it open to other citizens who are interested in the process? Can academics or students observe the process and potentially offer ideas to improve it?
  • What is the process for accrediting election observers, and who does this? Is it done at the state level? The local level? Not at all?
  • Has your state worked with international election observers? International observers often come to learn about the election process in the U.S. and bring that knowledge back to their home countries, but they may also be able to provide a useful perspective for U.S. election officials, too.
  • Do election observers have access to the entire election process—from the lead-up to the election, to polling places on Election Day, to the counting, tabulation and post-election procedures?

More information on the project to study election observability in the U.S. can be found on The Carter Center blog.

Katy Owens Hubler is a former member of NCSL’s elections team and currently consults for NCSL.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.