The NCSL Blog


By Wendy Underhill

What’s all this we hear now about partisan poll watchers? Amid the heat of this election, candidates have already begun encouraging more partisan poll watchers to participate on Election Day.

If this worries you, it shouldn't. Poll watchers aren’t watching anyone actually cast a ballot.

Most likely, they’re watching people check in to vote, and reporting back to their local political party headquarters about who has voted, and who still needs a rousing “get out the vote” call.

Sometimes, in some states, poll watchers are authorized to question, or “challenge,” a person’s ability to vote at that location, based on information that indicates he or she doesn’t live in the jurisdiction or for some other concern.

What they aren’t authorized to do is to campaign, to interfere with the voting process, or to talk directly to the voters. Instead, they can observe and report to the administrators if they see a procedural hitch. Traditionally, allowing representatives from major parties observe elections was intended as an integrity check. They still serve this function.

Partisans aren’t the only ones monitoring elections.

Nonpartisan election observers are also out and about during general elections. Some are academics, some are international observers, some are representing citizen groups and some are just interested citizens. The Carter Center and NCSL teamed up this year to figure out exactly who’s doing all these observations, and why they do it.

“Election observation helps to strengthen election processes by providing information and recommendations to hard-working and over-stretched election administrators as the election unfolds,” says Avery Davis-Roberts, from the Carter Center. “Here in the United States, the rules and regulations about who can observe what, when and where vary greatly across jurisdictions. Having clearer rules about observation and observer access can really help to institutionalize trust and good communication between observers and election administrators.”

That was Davis-Roberts’ takeaway from the project—one I agree with. My biggest takeaway, though, was that election officials are clear that what they really need is more poll workers, not more poll watchers.

All across the country, election officials say that finding enough poll workers to work 12-hour shifts for $150 to $200 on Election Day is hard, and gets harder every year. NCSL has interviewed 43 election administrators over the last few years, asking them what issues they face in their jurisdictions. Fifteen rank poll worker recruitment at the top, the single highest issue.

This election is an opportunity for loyal partisans to be part of the election itself—to be doers (as well as watchers).

Want more on nonpartisan election observers, partisan poll watchers and others? Check out these resources:

Wendy Underhill is the program director for elections and redistricting at 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.