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While many think "international election observation" is a process meant to assist new or emerging democracies, these efforts can benefit well-established democracies, such as that in the U.S., as well. Others do not see a role for anyone from other countries to play in observing U.S. elections. This webpage provides information on states that permit, prohibit or are silent on international election observation.
At the invitation of the U.S. State Department, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights brings international election observers to the U.S. during every general election. These delegations fan out across the states, and each team prepares a report on their observations that are compiled to create a national-level report of findings.
The U.S. was a founding member of the OSCE and signed the 1990 Copenhagen Agreement, which gives member countries the right to observe each other’s elections. Besides the OSCE, other organizations that observe elections around the world include The Carter Center, The International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Organization of American States (OAS).
Many of these international election observation organizations have agreed to common standards for the conduct of good election observation by endorsing the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation. In addition, individual observers are required to abide by a Code of Conduct.
State Laws on International Election Observers
Because elections are decentralized in the U.S., laws and customs regarding international observers vary.
Five states plus the District of Columbia explicitly refer to international observers in statute. All except Tennessee do so to permit international election observers; Tennessee prohibits them.
- California (Cal. Elec. Code 230): "An international election observer may be provided uniform and nondiscriminatory access to all stages of the election process that are open to the public, including the public review period for the certification of a ballot marking system, the processing and counting of vote by mail ballots, the canvassing of ballots, and the recounting of ballots. An international election observer shall not interfere with a voter in the preparation or casting of the voter's ballot, with a precinct board member or an elections official in the performance of his or her duties, or with the orderly conduct of an election."
- District of Columbia (D.C. Code 1-1001.02.25): "'Election observers' means persons who witness the administration of elections, including individuals representing nonpartisan domestic and international organizations, including voting rights organizations, civil rights organizations, and civic organizations."
- Missouri (M.R.S.115.409): "Except election authority personnel, election judges, watchers and challengers appointed pursuant to section 115.105 or 115.107, law enforcement officials at the request of election officials or in the line of duty, minor children under the age of eighteen accompanying an adult who is in the process of voting, international observers who have registered as such with the election authority, persons designated by the election authority to administer a simulated youth election for persons ineligible to vote because of their age, members of the news media who present identification satisfactory to the election judges and who are present only for the purpose of bona fide news coverage...no person shall be admitted to a polling place."
- Nebraska (Neb. Rev. Stat. 32-961): “For poll watchers eligible under subdivision (1)(a)(ii) of this section, any national or international election monitoring organization intending to appoint one or more poll watchers shall provide written notification to the Secretary of State no later than the close of business on the Wednesday prior to election day.”
- New Mexico (N.M. 1-1-3.2): “As used in the Election Code, ‘election observer’ means a person registered with the United States department of state as an international election observer or a person registered with the New Mexico secretary of state who is an academic engaged in research on elections and the election process.”
- Tennessee (Tenn. Code Ann. 2-1-119): "Any representative of the United Nations appearing without a treaty ratified by the United States senate stating that the United Nations can monitor elections in this state, shall not monitor elections in this state."
Many states permit the public to observe elections, and whether "the public" includes international observers would depend on state-specific interpretations. At least four additional states have statutory language that is inclusive of many types of observers, which may include international observers:
- Hawaii (HI Rev Stat 11-132-C-6): The list of people allowed in a polling place includes "Any person or nonvoter group authorized by the chief election officer or the clerk in county elections to observe the election at designated precincts for educational purposes provided that they conduct themselves so that they do not interfere with the election process."
- North Dakota (N.D. Cent. Code 16.1-05-09.1): “Election observers must be allowed uniform and nondiscriminatory access to all stages of the election process, including the certification of election technologies, early voting, absentee voting, voter appeals, vote tabulation, and recounts."
- South Dakota (S.D. 12-18-9): "Any person, except a candidate who is on the ballot being voted on at that polling place, may be present at any polling place for the purpose of observing the voting process. Any person may be present to observe the counting process."
- Virginia (Va. Code 24.2-604): "A local electoral board may authorize in writing the presence of additional neutral observers as it deems appropriate."
See NCSL’s webpage on Policies for Election Observers for additional information.