Policies for Election Observers

10/13/2020

Parties, candidates, citizen groups or independent organizations can deploy observers to witness the electoral process, both to learn from and improve the process. State policies vary considerably on who can observe and what they can observe.

The following interactive map gives a state-by-state examination of polices on election observation in 2020, including the ability to observe different stages of the electoral process and whether any special accommodations or restrictions are in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please note that access to different aspects of the process may differ depending on the category of observers. See "Who Can Observes Elections in the U.S." below for more information on categories of observers. The Carter Center's Who Can Observe U.S. Elections? A State-by-State Breakdown of Policies Governing Partisan and Nonpartisan Observers may be of use as well. 

On the map below, click on a state for additional details. if the state's policy is "not specified" that does not mean it is prohibited. Either by regulation or local custom, observations may be possible.  

Please email suggestions or corrections to elections-info@ncsl.org. 

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States

State flagSelect the state to learn more about election observation during Preelection Processes, In-Person Voting, Absentee Ballot Processing and Counting, Postelection Processes, and Pandemic-Related Accommodations or Restrictions.

ALABAMA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Not specified.

In-person voting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified. Partisan observers are authorized to observe at election day polling places (Ala. Code §17-8-7).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified. Partisan observers are authorized (Ala. Code §17-11-11).

Post-election processes

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified. Partisan observers are authorized (Ala. Code §17-8-7).
  • Nonpartisan observers are not permitted to observe recounts. Only representatives of opposing interests are invited to participate (Ala. Code §17-16-21).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

ALASKA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Not specified

In-person voting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers are authorized to observe at election day polling places (Alaska Stat. §15.10.170).
  • International observers are not permitted. Statute specifies that poll watchers must be citizens (Alaska Stat. §15.10.170).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Not specified.

Post-election processes

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers are authorized to observe at count centers (Alaska Stat. §15.10.170).
  • Access to other post-election processes is not specified.

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified

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ARIZONA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the general public, political parties, and the press from a public viewing area. Partisan observers may observe the proceedings from inside the room where they happen (Ariz. Rev. Stat. §16-449; 2019 Elections Procedures Manual p.87).

In-person voting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers are authorized to observe at election day polling places and early voting locations (Ariz. Rev. Stat. §16-590; 2019 Elections Procedures Manual p.139).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers are authorized to observe processing at the county recorder’s office (Ariz. Rev. Stat. §16-590; 2019 Elections Procedures Manual p.139).

Post-election processes

  • All proceedings at the counting center are open to the public (Ariz. Rev. Stat. §16-621).
  • For any statewide, county or legislative election, election officials shall provide a live video recording of the custody of all ballots while they are in the tabulation room in the counting center. The live video is linked from the secretary of state’s website for viewing by the public. A recording is also made and kept as public record for at least as long as the challenge period for the general election (Ariz. Rev. Stat. §16-621(C)).
  • Post-election audits are not subject to the live video recording cited above and are only open to partisan observers. However partisan observers may bring their own video camera to record it (Ariz. Rev. Stat. §16-602(B)). 
  • The official canvass of results is open to the public (Ariz. Rev. Stat. §16-643; 2019 Elections Procedures Manual p.239).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified, but for any statewide county or legislation election, officials must provide a live video recording of the custody of ballots while in the tabulation room, available from the secretary of state’s website.

ARKANSAS 

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Arkansas Code § 7-5-515).

In-person voting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers are authorized to observe at early voting locations and election day polling places (Arkansas Code § 7-5-312).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • The processing and counting of absentee ballots is open to the public (Arkansas Code § 7-5-416).

Post-election processes

  • The counting of paper ballots is open to the public (Arkansas Code § 7-5-603).
  • The canvass of results and any recounts are conducted by the county boards of election commissioners, which are held in public (A.C.A. § 7-4-105(b)).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

Executive Order EO 20-44, issued by Governor Asa Hutchison on August 7, 2020, encouraged county election officials to livestream the processing, canvassing, and counting of absentee ballot envelopes online for remote observation. 

CALIFORNIA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Nonpartisan observers (defined as a bona fide association of citizens or a media organization) may have representatives in attendance at any and all phases of the election. They may review the preparation and operation of tabulating devices, and their programming and testing (Cal Elec. Code §15004).
  • International observers (defined as official representatives of an international organization such as the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or the Organization of American States) also have 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 (Cal Elec. Code §2301).

In-person voting

  • Observers as defined above may observe the proceedings at polling places and early voting locations (Cal. Elec. Code §15004; Election Observation Rights and Responsibilities – January 2020. Note: this will be updated before the Nov. 3 election).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • The processing of vote-by-mail ballots is open to the public, but prior to and after the election (Cal Elec. Code §15104).
  • Observers may attend any and all phases of the election (Cal. Elec. Code §15004).
  • International observers may be provided access to the processing and counting of mail ballots (Cal Elec. Code §2301).

Post-election processes

  • All proceedings at the central counting place shall be open to the view of the public, but access to the area where electronic data processing equipment is being operated may be restricted (Cal. Elec. Code §15204).
  • Nonpartisan observers may attend any and all phases of the election, including activities at the central counting site on election day, vote-by-mail and provisional ballot processing, and the canvass (Cal. Elec. Code §15004).
  • International observers may be provided access the canvassing and recounting of ballots (Cal Elec. Code §2301).
  • The canvass is open to the public (Cal. Elec. Code §15301)
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Cal. Elec. Code §15360)
  • Recounts are open to the public (Cal Elec. Code §15629).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • In order to provide a safe and secure election for election workers, voters, and observers for the November 3, 2020, General Election, the Secretary of State’s Office, in consultation with California public health officials, developed guidance document, Election Administration Guidance under COVID-19. The guidance document may be found on the Secretary of State's website[KOH1] . The guidance document provides health and safety measures for observers, which includes a requirement that all observers wear a face covering while in the polling location.

 

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COLORADO

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Colo. Rev. State. 1-7-509(2))

In-person voting

  • Partisan observers are permitted to observe each step in the conduct of the election. This includes setup and breakdown of Voter Service and Polling Centers prior to and including election day (Colo. Rev. State 1-7-108; 8 CCR 1505-1(8.10.2)). 
  • Nonpartisan observers may be approved at the discretion of the secretary of state (Colo. Rev. Stat. 1-1.5-104; 8 CCR 1505-1(8.17)).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Partisan observers are permitted to observe each step in the conduct of the election. This includes observing ballot receipt and processing, signature verification of mail ballot envelopes, ballot duplication and ballot tabulation (Colo. Rev. State 1-7-108; 8 CCR 1505-1(8.10.2)). 
  • Nonpartisan observers may be approved at the discretion of the secretary of state (Colo. Rev. Stat. 1-1.5-104; 8 CCR 1505-1(8.17)).

Post-election processes

  • Partisan observers are permitted to observe each step in the conduct of the election. This includes ballot tabulation, provisional ballot processing, the canvass, recount and post-election audit (Colo. Rev. State 1-7-108; 8 CCR 1505-1(8.10.2)). 
  • Nonpartisan observers may be approved at the discretion of the secretary of state (Colo. Rev. Stat. 1-1.5-104; 8 CCR 1505-1(8.17)).
  • Members of the public have explicit access to certain parts of the post-election audit and may observe the entire process at the discretion of state and local election officials (8 CCR 1505-1 Rule 25).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • All observers must follow public health guidelines, wear masks and other personal protective equipment required by the county or location where election activities are occurring, and maintain strict social distancing guidelines. If observers are at a location for an hour or more, counties must use infrared thermometers to take their temperature. Anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms must immediately report it to the county official and leave the location (8 CCR 1505-1(27.1.2), 8 CCR 1505-1(27.5)).

CONNECTICUT

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Pre-election day processes

  • The preparation, test voting and sealing of tabulators for the election is open to the public (Conn. Gen. Stat. §9-244).

In-person voting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers are authorized to observe at election day polling places (Conn. Gen. Stat. §9-235).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Partisan observers are permitted to observe absentee ballot counting at polling places (Conn. Gen. Stat. §§9-236, 9-261; Procedure Manual for Counting Absentee Ballots, Secretary of the State of Connecticut, rev. 7/2013).
  • Absentee ballot counting at a central location is open to the public (Conn. Gen. Stat. §§9-147a, 9- 147c)

Post-election processes

  • The canvass of votes at the polling place is open to the public (Conn. Gen. Stat. §9-242b(2)).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Conn. Gen. Stat. §9-242b(5)).
  • The recanvas (aka recount) is open to the public (Conn. Gen. Stat. §9-311(b)).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

DELAWARE

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Delaware Code, Title 15, § 5008A).

In-person voting

  • Partisan observers are permitted in the voting area, and nonpartisan observers would be permitted if accompanied by members and employees of the Department of Elections or the State Election Commissioner and the Commissioner’s employees, identified by a badge or written authorization (Delaware Code, Title 15, §§ 4933, 4913).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • A department of elections may open absentee ballots in public meetings beginning the Friday before the day of the election in order to prepare them for tabulation (Delaware Code, Title 15, § 55510A). Partisan observers may also be present.
  • Notwithstanding any other provision of this chapter or regulations adopted by the Department, the Department may open mail ballot envelopes in public meetings at any time between the 30th calendar day before the election and the closing of the polls on election day in order to prepare them for tabulation. The Department shall notify each party on the ballot that they may have challengers at the meetings during which the Department opens the mail ballots. The challengers may challenge ballots as provided elsewhere in this title (Delaware Code, Title 15, Section 5611 (a)).

Post-election processes

  • Partisan observers may be present to observe the counting and tabulation of votes (Delaware Code, Title 15, § 4977).
  • The official canvass and recounts are open to the public (Delware Code, Title 15, § 5701)
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Delaware Code, Title 15, § 5012A).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • The earliest time the department of elections may begin processing absentee ballots, which is open to the public, is extended from the Friday before the day of the election to 10 calendar days before the election (Sixth Modification of the Declaration of a Statement Emergency for the State of Delaware Due to a Public Health Threat (A.6)).

FLORIDA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Flor. Stat. Title IX §101.5612).
  • Partisan observers may examine the registration and election processes, and the condition, custody, and operation of voting systems (Flor. Stat. Title IX §101.58).

In-person voting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers may be present in each polling room or early voting area anytime during the election and must be a qualified and registered elector of the county in which he or she serves (Flor. Stat. Title IX §101.131).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • If a vote-by-mail ballot is physically damaged and cannot be counted by the automatic tabulation equipment, a true duplicate copy is made in the presence of witnesses. Partisan observers may request to observe this process (Flor. Stat. Title IX §101.5614).

Post-election processes

  • The public may observe the process of verifying number of vote ballots, unused ballots, provisional ballots and spoiled ballots to ensure the number corresponds with the number of ballots issued after the polls close (Flor. Stat. Title IX §101.5614).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Flor. Stat. Title IX §101.591).
  • Any manual recount is open to the public (Flor. Stat. Title IX §102.166(3))

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

GEORGIA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Code of Georgia §§ 21-2-374, 21-2-379.6, 21-2-379.25).

In-person voting

  • Nonpartisan observers and the public may observe elections as long as they are not violating election law. All persons except poll watchers, poll workers, voters and voters’ children must stay outside the enclosed space during voting (Code of Georgia § 21-2-413 (f)).
  • Partisan observers are permitted within the enclosed space for the purpose of observing the conduct of the election and the counting and recording of votes (Code of Georgia §21-2-408(d)).
  • Officials engaged in the conducting of elections shall perform their duties in public (Code of Georgia § 21-2-406).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Rooms under the control or supervision of the absentee ballot clerk in which absentee ballots are being cast shall be considered polling places, subject to the same rules listed above (Code of Georgia § 21-2-414(b)).

Post-election processes

  • Counting of ballots at tabulating centers and precincts are open to the public (Code of Georgia § 21-2-483(b)). 
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Code of Georgia § 21-2-498).
  • Recounts are open to the public (Rule 183-1-15-.03)

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

HAWAII

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Pre-election day processes

  • Electronic voting equipment is subject to inspection, audit, and experimental testing, by qualified observers, before and after the election (Hawaii Rev. Stat. § 16-42). 

In-person voting

  • Any person or nonvoter group may be authorized by the clerk to observe at any voter service center or place of ballot deposit for educational purposes (Hawaii Rev. Stat. §11-132).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • At least two official observers must be present when absentee ballots are prepared for counting (Hawaii Rev. Stat. §16-47).

Post-election processes

  • Counting is open to observers (Hawaii Rev. Stat. §16-45) and to the public (Hawaii Rev. Stat. §16-24) as space permits.
  • Electronic voting equipment is subject to inspection, audit, and experimental testing, by qualified observers, before and after the election (Hawaii Rev. Stat. § 16-42). 
  • Observers may request to conduct a manual audit (Haw. Admin. Rules § 3-172-102).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

IDAHO

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Pre-election day processes

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers may examine voting machines prior to the election (Idaho Stat. §34-2416).

In-person voting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers may be present at polling locations (Idaho Stat. §34-2416).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Not specified.

Post-election processes

  • Recounts are open to the public (Idaho Stat. §34-2304).
  • Access to observing other post-election processes is not specified.

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

ILLINOIS 

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (10 ILCS 5/24A-9, 5/24B-9, 5/24C-9).

In-person voting

  • Nonpartisan observers, defined as citizen organizations interested in the investigation or prosecution of election frauds, or as a state of Illinois nonpartisan civic organization that provides voter information and education, the protection of voter’s rights, and the promotion of free and equal elections, may observe at polling places. Note that in the case of a citizen organization the authorized observers must be registered to vote in Illinois, and in the case of nonpartisan civic organizations, the group must continually maintain an office in Illinois (10 ILCS 5/17-23). 
  • Nonpartisan observers as defined above may observe early voting (10 ILCS 5/19A-60, 5/19-10).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Nonpartisan observers as defined above may be present where vote by mail ballots are counted and may observe election judges comparing signatures on ballot envelopes to those on file (10 ILCS 5/19-10, 5/19-7).

Post-election processes

  • After the polls close observers are authorized to remain until the canvass of votes is completed (10 ILCS 5/17-23). 
  • Nonpartisan observers as defined above may observe the post-election audit (10 ILCS 5/24A-15).
  • Access to observing recounts is not specified.

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Some jurisdictions in Illinois are making plans to move to larger facilities to process absentee ballots, so that observers may be present and able to safely socially distance (conversation with a local election official in Illinois 8/26/2020).

INDIANA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (IC 3-11-13-23).

In-person voting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not permitted. 
  • Partisan observers and the media are authorized to observe at election day polling places and early voting satellite offices (IC 3-6-8-1, IC 3-6-10-1, IC 3-6-8-7, IC 3-11-8-15).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Central count of absentee ballots may be observed by the public in an area designated by the county election board.
  • Partisan observers and the media are authorized to serve as a watcher for the central count of absentee ballot (IC 3-11.5-3).

Post-election processes

  • After election day the county board of elections meet to determine whether or not each provisional ballot is counted. This meeting is public and is also open to partisan and media observers (IC 3-11.7-4, generally).
  • Recounts for local and school board offices are open to the public, and each candidate affected by the recount may have a person serve as the watcher and the affected candidate and the media may also serve as a watcher (IC 3-12-6-21). 
  • Recounts for federal and state offices are open to the public, and each candidate affected by the recount may have a person serve as a watcher and the affected candidate and the media may also serve as a watcher (IC 3-12-11-17).
  • For counties using a direct record electronic (DRE) voting system, the county election board must perform an audit if the numbers reported by poll workers and the tapes coming from the system fall outside the audit constraints. If such an audit is required, then the public is informed of a post-election being conducted as it is a public meeting subject to the Open Door law (IC 3-12-3.5-8).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • By executive order, Indiana requires masks to be worn in all public locations. The current order expires before election day, but it may be renewed.

IOWA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Iowa Code §52.35).

In-person voting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers and members of the media may observe at polling locations (Iowa Code §49.104).
  • Persons interested in conducting and attending education voting programs may be permitted at the discretion of state and local election officials (Iowa Code §49.104).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Not specified.

Post-election processes

  • The canvass of votes is open to the public (Iowa Code §50.1A, §50.46).
  • Partisan observers may observe the post-election audit (Iowa Code §50.51).
  • Recounts are open to the public (Iowa Admin. Code 721—26.106).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

KANSAS

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Kan. Stat. §25-4411).

In-person voting

  • Nonpartisan observers are not explicitly permitted in statute but may be permitted if the observer is a registered Kansas voter and is appointed by an authorized poll agent. Authorized poll agents include chairpersons of political parties, chairpersons of ballot question committees, any candidate, or any precinct committeeperson (Kan. Stat. §§25-3005, 25-3005a).
  • Nonpartisan observers, including international groups, may be granted permission to observe on a case-by-case basis (2019 Kansas Election Standards Chapter II p.64).
  • Partisan observers, and nonpartisan observers if approved, may be present at the time and place of casting ballots (Kan. Stat. §25-3005).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Not specified.

Post-election processes

  • Partisan observers, and nonpartisan observers if approved, may be present and observe the proceedings at all original, intermediate and final canvasses of elections (Kan. Stat. §25-3005).
  • Post-election audits are conducted in a public setting, and observers may attend (Kan. Stat. §25-3009).
  • Recounts are open to the public, and observers may attend (Kan. Stat. §25-3107; 2019 Kansas Election Standards Chapter III p. 24).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

KENTUCKY

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Ky. Rev. Stat. §117.165).

In-person voting

  • Partisan observers may be present at polling places, and at in-person absentee early voting locations for qualified voters (Ky. Rev. Stat. §§117.235, 117.315, 117.085).
  • Nonpartisan observers are not explicitly permitted but may be accepted on a case-by-case basis.

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Partisan observers may be present (Ky. Rev. Stat. §117.087).

Post-election processes

  • Partisan observers may witness the tally at polling places after they have closed (Ky. Rev. Stat. §117.275).
  • If a discrepancy is found in the canvass, a recanvass is conducted. Partisan observers and the media may observe (Ky. Rev. Stat. §117.305).
  • Access to observing recounts is not specified.

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified. 

LOUISIANA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (LRS 18:1373).

In-person voting

  • Partisan observers are permitted, and any qualified voter of the state of Louisiana may serve as an observer (LRS 18:435, 18:427).
  • Access to observe early voting sites is not specified, but partisan observers and qualified electors may be present during the tabulation of early voting ballots (LRS 18:1313(D)).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Partisan observers and qualified electors may be present during the tabulation of absentee ballots, including in cases when tabulation begins prior to the closing of the polls (LRS 18:1313(D)).

Post-election processes

  • Partisan observers are admitted to all parts of the polling place during the election and during the counting and tabulation of votes (Poll Watchers Booklet p.4).
  • Partisan observers may be present at recounts (LRS 18:1313(J), 18:1453).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

MAINE 

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (21-A M.R.S.A. §854).

In-person voting

  • Partisan observers may be present at polling places outside of the guardrail. Additional party workers and others are allowed if there is sufficient space at the polling place (21-A M.R.S.A. §627).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Local election officials must publicly post the time when absentee ballot processing will begin on election day and notify partisan observers that this process is to occur. A member of the public may request to inspect absentee ballot applications and envelopes before they are processed (21-A M.R.S.A. §759).

Post-election processes

  • Ballot counting is conducted in public (21-A M.R.S.A. §695).
  • Partisan observers may be present at a recount (21-A M.R.S.A. §737-A).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

MARYLAND 

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Pre-election day processes

  • Pre-election demonstrations of voting systems are open to public observation. This includes the preparation, configuration and testing of the equipment that tabulates ballots (Maryland Challenger and Watchers Manual p.11-12). 

In-person voting

  • The state board of elections may designate a registered voter as an observer for any polling place in the state, and a local board my designate a registered voter as an observer for any polling location in the county. Partisan observers are also authorized (Md. Election Law Code Ann. § 10-311).
  • Other individuals may be authorized to access the voting room by the state board or local board of elections (Md. Election Law Code Ann. § 10-308).
  • The provisions above also apply to early voting (Md. Election Law Code Ann. § 10-301.1).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • The canvass of absentee ballots is open to public observation (Maryland Challenger and Watchers Manual p.11).

Post-election processes

  • If election results are produced in the polling place, observers may be admitted to hear the announced results (Md. Election Law Code Ann. § 10-314).
  • Authorized observers may witness the closing of the polls (Md. Election Law Code Ann. § 11-202).
  • The return of supplies on election night is open to public observation (Maryland Challenger and Watchers Manual p.11).
  • The counting of provisional and absentee ballots and verification of vote count is open to public observation (Maryland Challenger and Watchers Manual p.12).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Md. Election Law Code Ann. § 11-309).
  • Recounts are open to the public (COMAR 33.12.03.02.).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Several jurisdictions in Maryland plan to livestream the canvass, a process that is usually open to the public but would be difficult for the public to observe due to social distancing requirements (conversation with Maryland local election official 8/26/2020).

MASSACHUSETTS

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (950 CMR 54.00).

In-person voting

  • The election is held in public view. Observers are allowed in every polling location outside of the guardrail (950 CMR 54.04(22)).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Election officials open each envelope in view of any persons who may be present (Mass. Gen. Law Ann. ch. 54 §94).

Post-election processes

  • Ballot counting is open to the public (950 CMR 54.05(1)).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Mass. Gen. Law Ann. ch. 54 §109A; 950 CMR 46.00).
  • Recounts are open to the public (Election Recounts, Secretary of the Commonwealth, p.5).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

MICHIGAN

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (M.C.L.A. § 168.798).

In-person voting

  • Elections are an open process that may be observed by any interested person. There are “election challengers” and “poll watchers,” though challengers having greater access to the process. Nonpartisan observers could fall into either category, but challengers must be registered voters in Michigan (The Appointment, Rights and Duties of Election Challengers and Poll Watchers, Michigan Department of State).
  • Observers are permitted at polling locations (M.C.L.A. §§ 168.730, 168.733).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Observers may observe the absentee voter counting board at any time during election day (M.C.L.A. §§ 168.765a; The Appointment, Rights and Duties of Election Challengers and Poll Watchers, Michigan Department of State).

Post-election processes

  • Observers may observe counting (M.C.L.A. § 168.730).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Michigan Department of State, Post-Election Audit Manual).
  • Recounts are open to the public (M.C.L.A. § 168.874).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

MINNESOTA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Minn. Stat. Ann. §206.83).

In-person voting

  • Partisan observers and the media may enter the polling place during voting hours to observe the voting process. Partisan observers must be a resident of the state (Minn. Stat. Ann. §§ 204C.06, 204C.07).
  • There are no provisions for nonpartisan observers, but those interested in observing could send a request to the secretary of state to be appointed as representatives of the secretary of state’s office to observe election procedures (Minn. Stat. Ann. §204C.06; conversation with state election director in 2016).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • The counting of absentee ballots is open to the public (Minn. Stat. Ann. §203B.212 Subd. 5).

Post-election processes

  • Partisan observers can remain at the polling location until the votes are counted and the results declared (Minn. Stat. Ann. §204C.07).
  • Proceedings at counting centers are open to the public (Minn. Stat. Ann. §§206.85, 206.86).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Minn. Stat. Ann. §204C.07).
  • Recounts are open to the public (Minn. Admin. Rules 8235.0600).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

MISSISSIPPI

Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Miss. Code Ann. § 23-15-521).

In-person voting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers may observe at polling locations (Miss. Code Ann. § 23-15-577).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Not specified.

Post-election processes

  • The counting of ballots after the polls close is open to the public (Miss. Code Ann. § 23-15-581).
  • All proceedings at a counting center are open to the public (Miss. Code Ann. § 23-15-523).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

MISSOURI 

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Missouri Rev. Stat. § 115.233).

In-person voting

  • International observers who have registered with the election authority may be admitted to a polling place (Missouri Rev. Stat. §115.409).
  • Partisan observers may be present at the polling place until all ballots are cast on the day of the election (Missouri Rev. Stat. §§ 115.105, 115.107).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Partisan observers may be present at each location where absentee ballots are counted (Missouri Rev. Stat. §§ 115.105, 115.107).

Post-election processes

  • Partisan observers may observe the counting of votes (Missouri Rev. Stat. §§ 115.105, 115.107).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (15 CSR 30-10.110)
  • Nonpartisan observers directly involved in requesting a recount may observe the process (Missouri Rev. Stat. §115.601).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

MONTANA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Mont. Code Ann. §13-17-212).

In-person voting

  • Nonpartisan observers, defined as any group having an interest in the election, may request the election administrator to allow observers at any polling location (Mont. Code Ann. §12-12-121).
  • Partisan observers may observe at polling locations (Mont. Code Ann. §12-12-121).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Absentee ballot preparation, which includes signature comparisons and preparing the ballots to be counted, is open to the public (Mont. Code Ann. §13-13-241).
  • Any official vote count, including of absentee ballots, is open to the public (Mont. Code Ann. §§13-15-101, 13-13-241).

Post-election processes

  • Tabulation is open to the public (Mont. Code Ann. §13-15-101).
  • Partisan observers may observe vote counting procedures after the closing of the poll, and all entries of the results of the elections (Mont. Code Ann. §12-12-120).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Mont. Code Ann. §13-17-506).
  • Recounts are open to the public and the media (Mont. Code Ann §13-16-411).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

NEBRASKA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Not specified.

In-person voting

  • Not specified.

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Not specified.

Post-election processes

  • Partisan observers may be present at each counting location, and other observers may be authorized by local election officials (Neb. Rev. Stat. §32-1013).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

NEVADA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Not specified.

In-person voting

  • The conduct of voting at a polling place is open to the public. Any person may observe (Nev. Rev. Stat. §293.274, Nev. Admin. Code 293.245).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Members of the general public may observe the preparation of absentee ballots at central counting boards (Nev. Admin. Code 293.311).
  • Counting of absentee ballots is open to the public (Nev Rev. Stat. 293.385).

Post-election processes

  • The public is allowed to observe the handling of ballots after the polls close and observe the delivery of the sealed container of ballots to a receiving center or central counting place (Nev. Rev. Stat. 293B.330, 293B.335).
  • Counting of ballots at polling locations is open to the public (Nev. Rev. Stat. 293.363).   
  • The counting of ballots at central counting places are open to the public (Nev. Rev. Stat. NRS 293B.353, 293B.380).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Nev. Admin. Code 293.255).
  • Access to observe recounts is not specified, but access to the public may be permitted under provisions allowing public access to the counting process.   

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (NH Rev. Stat. Ann. 656:42 VIII(e)(1)).

In-person voting

  • Polling locations are open to the public, who may observe from behind a guardrail (Election Procedure Manual 2020, p.87).
  • Partisan observers are also permitted (NH Rev. Stat. Ann. 666.4). 
  • Ballot counting occurs at the polling location and is open to the public, who may observe from behind a guardrail. Ballots may not be hand counted before the polls close, but device counted ballots may be inserted into the ballot counting device (NH Rev. Stat. Ann. 659:63, 659:49).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Absentee ballot processing occurs at the polling location and is open to public observation (NH Rev. Stat. 659:50; Election Procedure Manual 2020 p.70).

Post-election processes

  • Recounts are conducted in public (NH Rev. Stat. 660:4).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • There is a recommendation that the public be placed at least six feet away from where absentee ballots are being processed (Election Procedure Manual, Special Guidance COVID-19, p.5).

NEW JERSEY 

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Pre-election day processes

  • Automatic tabulating equipment testing is open to the public (NJSA 19:53A-8).
  • Partisan observers may examine voting equipment before they are sent to polling locations (NJSA 19:48-6).

In-person voting

  • Partisan observes may be present while votes are cast, but others are not permitted in the polling place (NJSA 19:7-5, 19:15-8).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Not specified.

Post-election processes

  • Proceedings at the counting center are conducted under the observation of the public (NJSA 19:53A-8(b)).
  • Partisan observers may be present while votes are being counted (NJSA 19:7-5).
  • All proceedings of canvass boards are open to the public (NJSA 19:6-28).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (NJSA 19:61-9).
  • Recounts are open to the public (NJSA 19:28-3).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

NEW MEXICO

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Pre-election day processes

  • Not specified.

In-person voting

  • Nonpartisan election observers, defined as a person registered with the U.S. State Department as an international election observer or a person registered with the New Mexico Secretary of State as an academic engaged in research on elections and the election process, may observe at polling locations (NM Stat. Ann. §§1-1-3.2, 1-2-25, 1-2-29).
  • Nonpartisan observers as defined above may observe in an alternate or mobile voting location (NMAC 1.10.12.11).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Nonpartisan observers as defined above are allowed in the room where absentee ballots are counted (NM Stat. Ann. §1-2-25(6)).

Post-election processes

  • Nonpartisan observers may be appointed to observe county and state canvasses, and post-election audits (NM Stat. Ann. §§1-2-31, 1-2-32, 1-14-13.2).
  • Nonpartisan observers as defined above may observe recounts (NM Stat. Ann. §1-2-25(6)).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

NEW YORK

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Pre-election day processes

  • Partisan observers may examine voting equipment before it is sent out to polling locations (NY Election Law § 7–207).

In-person voting

  • Partisan observers may be present at polling locations and must be a qualified voter of the city or county in which he or she serves (NY Election Law § 8–500).
  • There is no provision for nonpartisan or international observers, but in the past when visitors from other states or countries have wanted to view the election process arrangements have been made with county election boards (conversation with state election director, 2016).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Partisan observers may be present during the examination of absentee ballot envelopes (NY Election Law § 8–506).

Post-election processes

  • Partisan observers may observe the canvass of votes at the polling location and the canvass of absentee ballots (NY Election Law §§ 9–102, 9–209).
  • Partisan observers may observe the post-election audit (NY Election Law § 9–211).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

NORTH CAROLINA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (N.C.G.S. § 163-165.7; 08 NCAC 04 .0307).

In-person voting

  • During the time allowed for voting, only election officials, partisan observers, runners, voters, those authorized to provide assistance, and minor children, are allowed in the voting enclosure. (N.C.G.S. §163-166.3).
  • Partisan observers that are appointed by the county political party are permitted and must be registered voters of the county in which they observe. Additionally, the State political parties can each designate 100 at-large observers who are North Carolina registered voters, and they can observe any voting place in the State. No more than two county observers and one at-large observer from the same political party are permitted in the voting enclosure at any time.  (N.C.S.G.S. § 163-45).
  • Partisan observers may also be present at early voting locations, which is called one-stop voting in North Carolina (N.C.S.G.A § 163-227.6).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Absentee ballot counting is open to the public (N.C.S.G.S. § 163-234). Note: counting can take place at the absentee meetings under G.S. 163-230.1(f) but cannot be tabulated and results reported until Election Day. In some counties, these meetings may only be accessible to the public via live video stream due to COVID-19.

Post-election processes

  • Procedures for closing the polling place is open to public inspection. This includes the return and accounting of all ballots, the certification of ballots by officials of more than one political party, the delivery of registration documents to the county board of elections, and the return to the county board of all issued equipment (N.C.S.G. § 163-166.10). See also 08 NCAC 10B .0105.
  • The vote count is open to the public (N.C.S.G. § 163-182.2(3)).
  • Recounts provide opportunities for public observation (N.C.S.G. § 163-182.7).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • County boards of elections shall require that election workers to encourage any observers to wear face coverings and offer face coverings to those not wearing them, unless they state that an exception applies (North Carolina State Board of Elections Numbered Memo 2020-18, DHHS Interim Guidance for Election Voting Locations, p.3). Observers must at all times remain socially distanced from election workers and voters in the curbside voting area. See Numbered Memo 2020-20, page 2.
  • In some counties, public meetings for counting absentee ballots may only be accessible to the public via live video stream due to COVID-19.

NORTH DAKOTA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Nonpartisan observers are allowed access to all stages of the election process, including the certification of election technologies (NDCC § 16.1-05-09).

In-person voting

  • Nonpartisan observers are allowed access to all stages of the election process, including early voting (NDCC § 16.1-05-09).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Nonpartisan observers are allowed access to all stages of the election process, including absentee voting (NDCC § 16.1-05-09).

Post-election processes

  • Nonpartisan observers are allowed access to all stages of the election process, including vote tabulation and recounts (NDCC § 16.1-05-09).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

OHIO

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Ohio Rev. Code § 3506.14).

In-person voting

  • Nonpartisan and international observers are prohibited (Ohio Secretary of State Election Official Manual, rev. 12/18/2019, Section 1.08). 
  • Partisan observers may observe during the casting of ballots, which includes in-person absentee voting and at precinct polling places on election day (Ohio Rev. Code § 3505.21). The observers may be present from the opening until the closing of the polls on election day, as well as after the polls close (Ohio Secretary of State Election Official Manual, rev. 12/18/2019, Section 1.08).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Partisan observers may be present at any time which a board of elections processes absente voter’s ballots before the time for counting those ballots (Ohio Rev. Code §§ 3505.21, 3509.06).

Post-election processes

  • Partisan observers may be present during the counting of ballots, which includes any time during which election officials count and tally ballots, make the official canvass of election returns, or conduct an audit of the official results of an election (Ohio Rev. Code § 3505.21).
  • Partisan observers are permitted to observe post-election audits, and results of the audit are made public (Ohio Rev. Code § 3505.331(C)).
  • Partisan observers may be present during recounts (Ohio Rev. Code § 3515.04).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

Not specified. 

OKLAHOMA 

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Pre-election day processes

  • Partisan observers may observe voting equipment testing. Recognized political parties are notified of the date, time, and place that a test will be performed and may send one or more observers (Oklahoma Stat. §§26-9-115, 26-7-130).

In-person voting

  • No one other than voters and election officials are permitted in the polling place during voting hours. Partisan observers, including those appointed by an independent candidate, may be present before the polls open and after they close but may not be present at the polling place at other times (Oklahoma Stat. §26-7-130).
  • Nonpartisan observers are not permitted.
  • Members of the media may be permitted inside the polling place for a period not to exceed five minutes (Oklahoma Stat. §26-7-112).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • The county election board meets publicly to remove the outer envelopes from all absentee ballots and examine and remove properly executed affidavits to prepare for counting (Oklahoma Stat. §26-14-123).

Post-election processes

  • Partisan observers may be present at any place where an official count is being conducted (Oklahoma Stat. §26-7-130).
  • The candidate or an authorized individual may be present at a recount. If the recount is to be conducted using electronic voting devices, the devices shall be tested for accuracy by the county election board within view of all contestants or their agents (Oklahoma Stat. §§26-8-113, 114).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Social distancing should be maintained in the polling place at all times, and election workers and voters are strongly recommended to wear masks at in-person voting sites (Oklahoma Covid-19 Polling Place Protocols).

OREGON

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Pre-election day processes

  • Vote tabulation equipment testing is open to the public (Ore. Rev. Stat. § 254.525).

In-person voting

  • Elections are conducted entirely by-mail in Oregon. Though voters can go to county offices to cast a ballot if they need certain services, there are not traditional polling locations. 

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Members of the public may observe all ballot processes except those that are confidential (Oregon Secretary of State, Vote by Mail Procedures Manual, rev. March 2020, p.22).
  • Observers may watch the receiving of mailed ballots and counting of votes and are authorized by a political party, a candidate, or the county clerk. Nonpartisan observers may be able to observe if authorized by the county clerk (Ore. Rev. Stat. §254.482).

Post-election processes

  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Ore. Rev. Stat. § 254.532).
  • Partisan observers may watch the recount (Ore. Rev. Stat. § 258.211).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified, but county clerks determine the number of observers allowed at any given time based on spaced, security and staff availability (Oregon Secretary of State, Vote by Mail Procedures Manual, rev. March 2020, p.22).

PENNSYLVANIA 

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Pre-election day processes

  • Partisan observers may be present during the preparation of voting equipment (25 P.S. § 3031.10, § 3011).

In-person voting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers may observe at polling locations and may stay until the time that the counting of votes is complete (25 P.S. § 2687).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Partisan observers are permitted to be present when absentee and mail-in ballot envelopes are opened, and when the ballots are counted and recorded (25 P.S. § 3146.8).

Post-election processes

  • Partisan observers may be present at the tabulation or canvassing of unofficial and official returns, and any recount or recanvass (25 P.S. § 2650).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • County boards of elections should consider conducting public meetings remotely using electronic services (Pennsylvania Department of State, Election Operations During COVID-19, p.3).

RHODE ISLAND

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (R.I.G.L. § 17-19-14).

In-person voting

  • The conduct of elections is open to the public.
  • Partisan observers are permitted to sit at a table in the room where voting is conducted (R.I.G.L. § 17-19-22).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • The opening of mail ballot envelopes, as well as the counting, canvassing and tabulation of mail ballots at the state board of elections is open to the public. There is a railed space where counting takes place and while the general public must stay outside of the rail, partisan observers are permitted within the railed space and may scrutinize the open, count, canvass and tabulation. The state board may allow others into the railed space at is discretion (R.I.G.L. § 17-22-2).

Post-election processes

  • The counting, canvassing and tabulation of ballots at the state board of elections is open to the public. There is a railed space where counting takes place and while the general public must stay outside of the rail, partisan observers are permitted within the railed space and may scrutinize the open, count, canvass and tabulation. The state board may allow others into the railed space at is discretion (R.I.G.L. § 17-22-2).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (R.I.G.L. § 17-19-37.4).
  • Recounts are open to the public (Rhode Island Board of Elections, Guide to Election Recounts, p.2).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

SOUTH CAROLINA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (S.C. Code Ann. §7-13-1390).

In-person voting

  • Elections are a public process, and anyone is allowed to observe as long as they behave in an orderly manner and do not interfere with the election process (South Carolina Election Commission, Poll Managers Handbook, rev. January 2020, p.43).
  • Partisan observers may be present at the polling location in a designated area where they can observe the entire election process (S.C. Code Ann. § 7-13-860).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • The process of examining envelopes contains absentee ballots is open to the public (S.C. Code Ann. § 7-13-35).

Post-election processes

  • The canvassing process and counting of ballots after the polls close is open to the public (South Carolina Election Commission, Poll Managers Handbook, rev. January 2020, p.43).
  • Access to observation of post-election audits or recounts is not specified.

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • During the pandemic, watchers and observers at polling places are required to wear masks and social distance (COVID-19 Requirements for Poll Watchers, Observers, Candidates, and Candidate Representatives).

SOUTH DAKOTA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (S.D.C.L. §12-17B-5).

In-person voting

  • Any person (other than a candidate on the ballot at that polling place) may observe the voting process (S.D.C.L. §12-18-9).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Any person may observe the absentee counting process (S.D.C.L. §12-19-44).
  • If a county uses an absentee precinct board, there is not an option for persons to watch the signature verification process as those counties can start the signature verification process as soon as the voted ballot is received by the county auditor.  That is a daily process they conduct when the ballots are received.  If the county does not use an absentee ballot precinct the signature verification process is done at the polling places by the precinct election boards.

Post-election processes

  • Any person may observe the counting process, as well as recounts (S.D.C.L. §12-18-9; SDLRC 5:02:19:04).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

TENNESSEE

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Pre-election day processes

  • Not specified.

In-person voting

  • Nonpartisan observers, defined as any organization of citizens interested in preserving the purity of elections and in guarding against abuse of the elective franchise, and partisan observers may observe at polling locations. Observers must be residents of the state (Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-7-104).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Nonpartisan observers (as defined above) and partisan observers may observe the counting of absentee ballots (Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-7-104).

Post-election processes

  • Nonpartisan observers (as defined above) and partisan observers may observe the counting of ballots (Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-7-104).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-20-103).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified, but no more than two observers per candidate or organization may be at each polling place (Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-7-104).

TEXAS

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Texas Election Code §§127.096, 129.023).
  • Partisan observers may observe the inspection and securing of voting equipment before the election (Texas Election Code §33.059).

In-person voting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not permitted. Bystanders are not permitted and loitering is a Class C Misdemeanor (Texas Election Code §§61.001, 61.003).  
  • Partisan observers may be present at each polling place and early voting location (Texas Election Code §§33.001 – 33.007).
  • Partisan observers must be a qualified voter of the county or political subdivision in which he or she serves (Texas Election Code §33.031).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Partisan observers can be appointed to observe the ballot board process and count mail ballots and provisional ballots (Texas Election Code §33.054).

Post-election processes

  • Partisan observers may be present at each central counting station (Texas Election Code §§33.001 – 33.007).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Observers may be asked to adhere to certain health and safety measures to protect the health and well-being of other observers, election workers and voters. Observers cannot be required to wear a face covering, but it is recommended. Election officials may consider having extras masks or face shields available at polling locations and ask observers to maintain at least six feet of separation from other individuals. Election officials can ask observers to review the health protocols and self-screen before entering the polling place, and if an observer arrives with signs or symptoms of possible COVID-19 election officials may request that another observer is appointed (Texas Secretary of State, Election Advisory No. 2020-19 Voting in Person During COVID-19).
  • The presiding judge of the polling place/ballot board/central count is the keeper of the peace in that location on election day. The presiding judge may decide that not wearing a mask when close to others is a breach of the peace. He or she may eject watchers who breach the peace (Texas Election Code §32.075).

UTAH

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Pre-election day processes

  • Anyone may register as an observer and observe voting equipment testing (UCA 20A-3a-801).
  • Those that register as observers may also observe the collection, receipt, transport or transmission, and processing of a ballot (UCA 20A-3a-801).

In-person voting

  • Anyone may register as an observer and may observe the setup and take down of a polling location, voter check-in, the collection, receipt and processing of a ballot, and the transport or transmission of a ballot that is in an election official’s custody (UCA 20A-3a-801).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Anyone may register as an observer and observe the opening and inspection of a manual ballot and ballot duplication (UCA 20A-3a-801).

Post-election processes

  • Anyone may register as an observer and observe ballot tabulation, the post-election audit, a canvassing board meeting, the certification of the results of an election, and a recount (UCA 20A-3a-801).
  • The canvass is open to the public (UCA 20A-4-303).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

Utah SB 6007 made temporary changes to the Election Code as they relate to the 2020 regular general election to protect public health and safety in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. It included a provision that permits election officials to reduce the number or otherwise regulate the placement and conduct of observers as the election officer determines is appropriate. It also permits the requirement for a public canvass be fulfilled by recording the canvass and making the recording available to the public. 

VERMONT

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (17 V.S.A. § 2493).

In-person voting

  • Anyone may observe the election process from outside of the guardrail, but partisan observers may also challenge a person’s right to vote (17 V.S.A. § 2564; conversation with state election director, 2016).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • If absentee ballots are processed before election day, the public may be present and inspect the certificate envelopes (17 V.S.A. § 2546a).

Post-election processes

  • Anyone may observe outside the guardrail or within a designate area in which ballots are being counted (17 V.S.A. § 2581).
  • Recounts are open to the public (17 V.S.A. § 2602c).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Any member of the public can request to observe the processing of ballots returned by mail. If in-person observation by members of the public is not possible due to restrictions related to COVID-19, the process may be live-streamed to allow for remote review, or may be recorded (Vermont Secretary of State, First Statewide Elections Directive, July 20, 2020).

VIRGINIA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Partisan observers may observe voting equipment testing and sealing to prepare for voting (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-633).

In-person voting

  • Nonpartisan observers, referred to as “additional neutral observers,” may be authorized by local election officials (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-604.5).
  • Partisan observers are authorized and must be a qualified voter of the Commonwealth (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-604.4).
  • Members of the media may visit and film or photograph inside the polling place for a reasonable and limited amount of time (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-604.5).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Partisan observers are permitted at central absentee voter precincts where absentee ballots are received, counted and recorded (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-604.4).
  • Nonpartisan observers, referred to as "additional neutral observers," may be authorized by local election officials (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-604.5). Since the central absentee precinct is considered a precinct, it falls under the same rules for observers as other precincts.

Post-election processes

  • The canvass of the election is an open public meeting.
  • Partisan observers may attend the meeting where results are reported (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-671).
  • Partisan observers may observe the post-election audit (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-671.1).
  • Partisan observers may observe a recount (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-802.1).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified, but no more than three partisan observers per political party or candidate may be in a polling location at one time (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-604.4).

WASHINGTON

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (RCW 29A.12.130).

In-person voting

  • The county auditor requests a list of partisan observers from each major political party (RCW 29A.60.170).
  • Nonpartisan observers may be requested by the county auditor from any organization (RCW 29A.60.170).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • The proceedings at counting centers are open to the public (RCW 29A.60.170).
  • County auditors must request that the major political parties appoint partisan observers and county auditors have the discretion to also request that nonpartisan observers be appointed (RCW 29A.40.100).

Post-election processes

  • Appointed partisan and nonpartisan observers may be present for the post-election audit (RCW 29A.60.170).
  • Partisan observers may witness a recount (RCW 29A.64.041).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified, but some jurisdictions already provide opportunities to observe ballot processing activities remotely. King County, where Seattle is located, provides an online stream of election activities.  

WEST VIRGINIA

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Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (W. Va. Code §3-4A-26).

In-person voting

  • Observers are not permitted in polling locations (W. Va. Code §3-1-37).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Not specified.

Post-election processes

  • Proceedings at the central counting center are open to the public (W. Va. Code §3-4A-27).
  • The canvass is open to the public (W. Va. Code §3-6-9).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (W. Va. §3-4A-28).
  • Recounts are open to the public (WV State Rules 153-20-6.2).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • For activities listed above that are open to the public, counties may choose to live-stream the proceedings online. This is optional but not required.

WISCONSIN

State flag

Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (Wis. Stat. § 5.84).

In-person voting

  • Any member of the public may be present at any polling place or any place where in-person absentee voting is taking place (Wis. Stat. § 7.41).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Absentee ballot processing and counting is open to the public (Wis. Stat. §§ 6.88, 7.52). 

Post-election processes

  • The local and county canvass is open to the public (Wis. Stat. §§ 7.51, 7.60).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (Wisconsin Elections Commission, Voting Equipment and Election Audits).
  • Recounts are open to the public (Wis. Stat. §9.01(3)).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Local election officials can require election observers to be at least six feet away from the voting and registration table and limit observers if necessary (Wisconsin Board of Elections, Poll Worker Training – COVID). 

WYOMING

State flag

Pre-election day processes

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers may be present for voting equipment testing (Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 22-10-108, 22-11-104).

In-person voting

  • Access for nonpartisan observers is not specified.
  • Partisan observers may serve at polling places (Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 22-15-109).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Not specified.

Post-election processes

  • Not specified.

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified.

District of Columbia

State flag

Pre-election day processes

  • Voting equipment testing is open to the public (D.C. Mun. Regs. §3-801.2).

In-person voting

  • Persons who wish to witness the administration of elections, including nonpartisan or bipartisan, domestic or international organizations, may petition the board of elections to observe at any early voting center or polling place (D.C. Mun. Regs. §3-706.2).

Absentee ballot processing and counting

  • Not specified.

Post-election processes

  • Persons who wish to witness the administration of elections, including nonpartisan or bipartisan, domestic or international organizations, may petition the board of elections to observe at any ballot counting place (D.C. Mun. Regs. §3-706.2).
  • Post-election audits are open to the public (D.C. Code Ann. §1-1001.09a).
  • Space permitting, members of the public are given access to the location where recounts occur (D.C. Mun. Regs. §3-816.6).

Special accommodations or restrictions for observers due to pandemic

  • Not specified. 

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Overview

Election observation is the process by which parties, candidates, citizen groups or independent organizations deploy observers to witness the electoral process.

Different types of observers have very different goals for watching an election. While observers from political parties seek to ensure that election administration does not disadvantage their campaigns, nonpartisan observers focus on checking compliance with election administration regulations. Credible nonpartisan observers are interested in promoting integrity, transparency, and efficiency in the electoral process and have no stake in the political outcome. During contentious or highly competitive elections, impartial observation can provide reliable feedback about which aspects of an election went well and what parts could improve. 

Credible observers can help ensure procedures are properly followed and can increase public confidence in well-run elections. Nonpartisan international observers often use data-driven methods aimed at promoting transparency and integrity in elections, which in turn can improve the voter experience. International observers may or may not be permitted by state law, or the interpretation of state law.

"It's not, from our perspective, an exercise for observers to say 'Got ya!' but rather it's about understanding that things are working the way they're supposed to, because that does increase confidence."

—Pam Smith, president, Verified Voting Foundation (2016)

Observers are trained to attentively watch without interfering. They examine not only Election Day activities, such as the casting of ballots, but also preelection and postelection processes. Observer groups may watch such activities as voter registration, testing of voting machines, ballot tabulation and recounts, and much more. They gather relevant information about the electoral process and can report back to election officials when problems arise. Following an election, observer organizations not affiliated with political parties, whether international or domestic, often produce public reports to share key observations. These reports include recommendations that aim to assist election administrators in improving efficiency and accountability for future election cycles.

The United States’ highly decentralized election administration system can make election observation especially challenging. While most democracies have a more centralized process, U.S. election administration occurs largely at the county level. As a result, regulations that govern observers vary widely across the 50 states and even across counties within a single state.

"We emphasize that our observers are observers. They're not to interfere at any time. Our experience in Nebraska has always been that the election workers and administrators have been very cooperative."

—Senator Adam Morfeld, Founder, Nebraskans for Civic Reform (2016)

Details regarding observers’ proximity to polling places, how many observers can be present, which types of observers are permitted, which parts of the electoral process can be observed, etc. change depending on state election codes and county regulations. Legislators, therefore, play a key role in determining policies that reinforce transparency and protect against electoral fraud in very practical ways. Their decisions determine not only the guidelines by which elections are conducted and the quality of election administration, but also the level to which observers can be involved in collaborating to strengthen elections.

In this 50-state statutory research, we look at the relevant laws and practices for multiple types of election observers.

Who Can Observe Elections in the U.S.

Several kinds of groups conduct election observation in the U.S. While other observers may play a role, this study examined the rules for the following:

NOTE: The variation in terminology between states regarding regulation of election observers, along with varying interpretation in practice of statute and rule over time, makes the categorization above based to some extent on judgment. If you believe your state is not categorized correctly, please contact NCSL’s elections team.

Summary of Findings on Who Can Observe

  • Almost all states, with a few exceptions, have statutory provisions for partisan citizen election observers. It is common practice for political parties and candidates to appoint poll watchers and/or challengers to observe elections.
  • At least 34 states and the District of Columbia allow nonpartisan citizen observers to be present at all or some election activities. This includes explicit access in statute, access in practice, and public access to observe the elections. Of these:
    • Eleven states and the District of Columbia have explicit statutory provisions to allow for nonpartisan citizen observers: California, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia.
    • Nine states allow the public broad access to the election process, including observing polling place operations on Election Day (public access includes members of nonpartisan citizen groups): Georgia (so long as there is no overcrowding or inconvenience for voters), Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.
      • Five additional states do not specify or do not permit nonpartisan citizen observers at polling places on Election Day but do allow the public access to view the counting process: Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Mississippi, and West Virginia.
      • Note that the preelection testing of voting equipment and postelection processes such as postelection audits or recounts are often open to the public, in addition to what is included here. For more detailed information, see the map.
    • Fourteen state don't explicitly authorize nonpartisan citizen observers in statue but have allowed them in practice in the past. This may be left up to the discretion of the state or local election officials and evaluated on a case by case basis: Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska (will explicitly allow them in statute beginning Nov. 14, 2020), New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Oregon
  • At least 33 states and the District of Columbia have allowed international nonpartisan observers to be present at elections in the past. This includes explicit access in statute, access in practice, and public access to observe the elections. Note that access for the 2020 November elections may be different than it has been in the past, due to the current global pandemic.
  • Many states have had experience with academic observers, though this category of observer is typically not explicitly permitted in statute (with the exception of New Mexico – see the Case Studies section for more details on New Mexico). In some states academic observers may gain access to polling places through the same process as nonpartisan citizen observers, or access may be granted on a case by case basis.

Partisan Citizen Observers (Poll Watchers)

In the U.S., voters representing political parties, candidates, or groups favoring or opposing a ballot proposition can be partisan citizen observers, often known as poll watchers. They generally guard against activity that could undermine their own party or group’s interests. These observers are permitted by statute in most U.S. states.

Appointed by political parties, candidates or ballot issue groups, these individuals are partisan citizen observers. They are referred to by many different names in the U.S. but are most commonly called poll watchers and challengers. While partisan observers’ specific responsibilities vary by state, they generally watch the casting of ballots, any testing of voting equipment, and counting procedures. Unlike other observers examined in this study, poll watchers and challengers have a specific or partisan interest in election results. They represent political candidates, parties, and groups that advocate for or against specific policies.

A poll watcher’s primary purpose is to ensure their party has a fair chance of winning an election. Poll watchers closely monitor election administration and may keep track of voter turnout for their parties. They are not supposed to interfere in the electoral process apart from reporting issues to polling place authorities and party officials.

Challengers also watch to make sure procedures are properly followed in polling places, but they are distinct from partisan poll watchers in that they have power to contest voters’ eligibility to cast a vote. A challenged voter may be required to prove his or her eligibility with documents and identification before proceeding to cast a regular or provisional ballot.

The majority of U.S. states have statutory regulations permitting partisan citizen observers. Most states specify how many partisan observers can be present, how they are appointed or trained, when and in which polling places they can be present, what their privileges and responsibilities are, and so on.

Nonpartisan Citizen Observers

Many U.S. nonpartisan organizations train citizens to observe elections, and most groups are based in the states or counties in which they seek to observe. These observers work to protect the integrity of the electoral process and advance electoral quality and accountability regardless of the political outcome.

Some organizations observe a single stage of election administration, such as postelection audits or recounts. Others seek to view all preelection, Election Day, and postelection processes. While some states have no statutory provisions to allow nonpartisan citizen observers, others grant special approval for them to watch the elections. Nonpartisan citizen observers can usually observe in states that allow observation by the public, within a designated area or behind a guard rail.

Like international observers, nonpartisan citizen organizations have no stake in the political outcome of an election. They often will produce public reports with observation summaries and recommendations for how to improve future elections. Their presence can help build public trust in a transparent, verifiably democratic electoral process.

"We noticed a sudden spike in the number of challenges [by political party representatives] in a mid-sized town in the state. Within minutes our observers were able to report this. We could respond almost in real time! [The public] was so informed.”

—Mark Halvorson, founder and board member for Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota (CEIMN), about using an online platform to update the public about the conduct of elections. Halvorson was referring to his group's work during the 2008 Minnesota Senate statewide recount. (2016)

Nonpartisan observation can provide a particularly important way for citizens to encourage accountability in the democratic system outside of party structures. In some cases, nonpartisan citizen observers are able to report election administration issues as soon as they arise, thereby helping administrators to respond immediately and avoid further problems.

International Nonpartisan Observers

International nonpartisan organizations deploy teams of international observers, who are non-citizens and non-residents of the country where an election is being held. They typically follow a professional methodology based on international and domestic standards for democratic elections. Impartial international observers seek to provide a credible, data-driven assessment of the conduct of an election and are not interested in the political outcome. In 1990, the U.S. committed to inviting and providing access for international observers when it signed the OSCE Copenhagen Document.

The assessments from these international observers are created for the benefit of the population of the country where an election is held and to demonstrate the interest of the international community.

Observers follow professional, data-driven methodologies that are developed by each organization consistent with international human rights standards and national laws. International observers must be invited by a country’s electoral management body and welcomed by all major political parties. International observer groups go to great lengths to ensure the professionalism and integrity of long-term and short-term observers and members of other kinds of observer delegations. As a result, anyone participating in one of these capacities on an election observation mission is expected to sign the Code of Conduct for International Election Observers. Additionally, international organizations check that their observers have no stake in an elections’ political outcome by recruiting only noncitizens and nonresidents of the countries where the elections are held. 

“Since 2002, OSCE has observed six different U.S. elections. OSCE goes to 57 member states, using international standards for democratic elections and checking compliance with these standards.”

–Richard Lappin, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (2016)

Because international observers come from around the world, they are often deployed in smaller numbers than those of citizen observers. Some international observation missions share information with domestic observer organizations, as the work of both groups can complement one another. Nevertheless, international observation missions maintain independence.

International election observation aims to help countries achieve genuine democratic elections and promote respect for international human rights. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an intergovernmental organization, has observed six U.S. elections since 2002. They issue public reports after every observation mission, assessing the democratic quality of elections in the U.S.

International observers come to the United States during general elections under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). See NCSL’s webpage on international observers.

Academic Observers

Academic observers are associated with higher education institutions and university initiatives. Many academic observers study elections with a goal of strengthening democratic practices. Like nonpartisan observers, academics generally do not promote a particular campaign or political outcome.

Academic observers typically must be granted permission by election administrators to provide an impartial, thorough and constructive evaluation of the electoral process. As with nonpartisan observers, this cooperation can be mutually beneficial. Academics are permitted to conduct research in their fields and administrators are guaranteed an observational presence that builds public trust in the fairness, honesty and effectiveness of an election. Academic observers are granted observation access at the county level and often depend on good relationships between observers and election officials.

Academic observers note that their observations are not informed by pre-existing conceptions, positive or negative, of election administrators. Like nonpartisan observation, academic monitoring aims to make impartial recommendations in a good faith understanding of the democratic commitments to be upheld within election administration. In some cases, academics in the field report problems immediately to administrators to ensure the greatest level of electoral integrity. 

“Counties have said that we’re their eyes and ears on Election Day because they’re too busy administering the elections to be observing them and focusing on ways to improve them. At this point, if we see that there are big problems with the elections, we actually call the counties directly.”

-Lonna Rae Atkeson, director, Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy (2016)

New Mexico is one of a few states that explicitly includes academic observers in its election law (N.M. Stat. Ann §1-1-3.2). The state permits nonpartisan observation at all stages of the election and differentiates between “election observers” and “poll watchers or challengers.” Election observers include those who register with the U.S. Department of State as international observers, or with the New Mexico secretary of state as academics engaged in research on elections and the election process.

Lonna Rae Atkeson directs the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy (C-SVED) at the University of New Mexico and has conducted academic observation in multiple counties over many election cycles. Her team works with the secretary of state’s office and has built relationships with county officials over many years. C-SVED is widely recognized for its work on such issues as voter flow and efficiency in polling places, training and professionalism among poll workers, and privacy for disabled voters.

Asked how relationships with county officials contributed to the success of C-SVED’s observation work, Atkeson said: “Trust between observers and administrators to be working toward the same goals is so important. Building these relationships over time demonstrated our commitment to democracy. And having people in those positions who want feedback about the process was also critical.” Collaboration between observers and election officials has created room for feedback loops in New Mexico’s elections. Academic observers collect information over several election cycles, suggest ways for improvement, and work closely with administrators and lawmakers to implement sustainable changes.

What is the Accreditation Process in the States?

Accreditation involves the issuing of any identification or documents required to conduct election observation. According to international standards and best practices, accreditation should be granted for all persons selected to be observers under clearly defined, reasonable and nondiscriminatory requirements for accreditation (See ACE Electoral Network- Election Integrity: Accrediting Observers).

As international election observation has become common practice in many parts of the world, most countries that allow observers have a centralized accreditation process. In the U.S., accreditation is less formal. Many states provide no official documentation or identification for approved observers.

However, about 80% of states have statutory guidance on the appointment of partisan citizen observers, often known as poll watchers. This process looks something like the following: a party or candidate submits a list of observers’ names to county officials within a predetermined time window and obtains a set of signatures before sending observers to the polls. The appointment process typically does not require a code of conduct, special training, or identification for observers.

In most states, neither a formal accreditation nor an informal appointment process is specified for nonpartisan observers. Notably, these requirements vary widely by type of observer and state, but county level officials are usually in charge of the process.

  • Forty-one states and the District of Columbia have a formal accreditation/appointments process for partisan citizen observers (poll watchers and challengers). This appointment is made by local party chairs, candidates, or ballot issue groups and can require approval by local election officials or the Secretary of State’s office.
  • Nine states allow partisan citizen observers, nonpartisan citizen observers, and/or international obersvers but have no accrediation/appointment processes for any type of observer. This is often because observer access is determined by local election officials, or the putlic at large may observe the election process and formal accreditation is therefore not necessary.
    • Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia
  • Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have a formal accreditation/appointment process for nonpartisan citizen observers. This occurs through collaboration between citizen organizations and state or county election boards, secretary of state offices, and/or county clerks' offices.
    • California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

What Role Do Federal Observers Play?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 allows the appointment of federal observers to monitor elections in local jurisdictions or states that have been certified by the Attorney General of the United States. Federal observers from the Department of Justice (DOJ) are appointed and sent when there are concerns about compliance with federal laws. Questions might relate to potential racial discrimination during the polling process, compliance with bilingual election procedures or inadequate accessibility for disabled voters. Observers are trained to remain neutral and impartial as they observe polls on Election Day and to cooperate with state and local election officials.

The number of states being observed, and therefore the number of federal observers being appointed and assigned, has varied over the years. In 2008 and 2012, the DOJ assigned federal observers to 23 states.

Following the decision of the Supreme Court in Shelby Co. v Holder (2013), the number of federal observers that were deployed in 2016 was much smaller. For the 2016 presidential elections, five states (Alabama, Alaska, California, Louisiana, and New York) determined by court order, had federal observers, making it the smallest deployment since the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  DOJ can send its own staff to observe elections, but only with permission from the local jurisdiction. See the DOJ's fact sheet for further information on its role in election observation. 

Legislative Action on Election Observation

In the last several years there has been a trickle of legislation (one to four bills enacted per year) on the topic of election observation, relating to who can be an observer, the process of becoming an observer, and which aspects of the election process may be observed. Enacted bills include: 

Modifications to who can be an election observer:

  • Nebraska LB 1055 (2020) established the role of a poll watcher as either a registered voter of the state, or an individual representing a state-based, national, or international election monitoring organization. The bill goes into effect after the November 2020 elections.
  • New York AB 1525 (2019) permitted any political committee supporting or proposing a ballot proposal to have watchers in any general, special, town or village election and any party committee and any candidate on the ballot to have three watchers for each election district in a primary election.
  • Utah SB 94 (2018) consolidated multiple terms for poll watcher (voting poll watchers, counting poll watchers and inspecting poll watchers) to the generic term “poll watcher” and permitted poll watchers to observe various aspects of the process
  • Arkansas HB 2138 (2017) prohibited a member of the state or county board of election commissioners from serving as a poll watcher.
  • California AB 2021 (2016) made it explicit that international election observers may have uniform and nondiscriminatory access to all stages of the election process that are open to the public.
  • Tennessee SB1945 (2016) prohibited the appointment of a candidate’s spouse to serve as an election observer.
  • Montana HB529 (2015) prohibited a candidate from serving as a poll watcher.
  • New York AB5075 (2014) prohibited candidates for public office in a given election from acting as poll watchers.
  • Alaska HB104 (2013) set the requirement that poll watchers be U.S. citizens.

Modifications to the process of becoming an observer:

  • Nebraska LB 1055 (2020) established an accreditation process for observers. The bill goes into effect after the November 2020 elections.
  • Arizona SB 1054 (2019) increased the amount of time before an election for nonpartisan observers to apply to observe at a counting center. Only three persons or groups may observe activities at the counting center and are chosen by lot from those that apply.
  • Louisiana HB 563 (2019) added a requirement that a list of watchers be filed with the clerk of the court in each parish where a candidate will have watchers if the office is in more than one parish.
  • New Mexico HB 407 (2019) amended the definition of watchers to include an election-related organization or any group of three candidates for election in a statewide election and also outlines where what aspects of the process may be observed.
  • Mississippi HB 467 (2017) added a credentialing process and code of conduct for partisan poll watchers.
  • Virginia HB 1333 (2015) specified that the state or district chairman may designate authorized representatives of political parties if the county or city chairman is unavailable to do so.
  • Wisconsin AB 202 (2014) required all authorized observers to sign in on a log provided at the polling place and provided for observation areas of not less than 3 feet or more than 8 feet from the voter check-in table.
  • Arkansas HB 1551 (2013) required the State Board of Elections to certify at least one state election monitor for each congressional district and HB 1551 (2013) required training for certified state election monitors.
  • Texas SB 160 (2013) required election officials to provide poll watchers with identification to be displayed by the watcher at the polling place.

Modifications to which aspects of the election process may be observed:

  • Hawaii HB 1248 (2019) enacted voting by mail across all counties for all elections, and included a section allowing poll watchers to be present at voter service centers.
  • Maryland SB 5 (2015) permitted authorized partisan and nonpartisan observers, and any others who wish to be present, to observe the canvass process.
  • Virginia HB 319/SB 537 (2012) specified that partisan observers may be close enough to the voter check-in table to be able to hear what is occurring, but that observation shall not violate the secret vote or otherwise interfere with the election.

Case Studies on Election Observation

Connecticut

In Connecticut, access to observe in polling places is reserved for political party representatives, termed challengers and unofficial checkers. These partisan citizen observers are designated by the town chairman of each party. At least two days ahead of an election, each chairman submits a list of names to the registrar of voters to appoint political party observers to watch all stages of the process. However, preelection and postelection procedures are open to the public.

Connecticut Voters Count, a nonpartisan citizen observer group, has observed all major postelection audits in Connecticut since 2007. The group has produced reports aimed at improving the observability of the audit and general transparency in the auditing process. In addition to several other recommendations, executive director Luther Weeks explained that his organization recommends well-defined notice periods for public audits, more enforceable procedures for audits and recounts, and clear standards for ballot protection.

North Dakota

In 2011, North Dakota became one of the few states to explicitly allow access for election observers by statute. The North Dakota Legislature passed a bill guaranteeing election observers “uniform and nondiscriminatory access to all stages of the election process” (see N.D. Century Code §16.1-05-09).

Senator Ray E. Holmberg (R) drafted the bill and worked with the Association of Counties to find language with which county officials, who are ultimately responsible for administering the elections, would be comfortable. Recounting how the bill got started, Holmberg recalled thinking “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Here in the U.S., we feel that we should send our citizens and representatives overseas to ensure that other countries’ elections are being run fairly. At the same time, we should make it possible for people to come over here and do the same thing for us and our elections.” The bill does not explicitly say “international” observers, but that was his intent, and it is how the law is interpreted in North Dakota.

North Dakota now welcomes different types of observers, who must each wear a badge with the individual’s name and the name of the organization she or he represents. Election observers are not permitted to wear campaign materials and may not interfere in the electoral process. While there is no official limit to the number of observers who can be present in North Dakota polling places, an election inspector has the right to limit numbers of observers based on space restrictions.

California

California’s administrative election code places requirements on county election officials to ensure public access for all kinds of observers to watch the elections. In addition, California provides for formal accreditation, credentialing, and registration of observers. Each county has specific rules and procedures for election observation, and observers are requested to work with local election authorities to register and obtain necessary credentials. Formalized accreditation processes may enable states to track observation activities and to require proper training and observers’ compliance with laws.

California has a history of independent election observers being present during its elections. Each statewide election is observed by representatives of various nonpartisan citizen groups and academic groups, and international observers have been present during some past elections. Pam Smith, president of Verified Voting Foundation California board, provided some insight about the culture of election observation in the state. She noted the vast cultural differences across the nation and noted, “In California, it’s stated in statute that you can observe any part of electoral process as long as you’re not making a nuisance of yourself.”

Methodology and Resources

In 2016, the information on this webpage was compiled from various sources, including state statutes and regulations, state election manuals, interviews with state election directors, secretary of state websites, nonpartisan organization websites and publications, news and media articles, and U.S. Department of Justice publications. In 2020, the information was updated with a similar approach.

Additional Resources

This project is a collaboration between The Carter Center and NCSL. To offer comments or corrections, please contact NCSL's Elections Team.