Policies for Election Observers

11/7/2022

Political parties, candidates, citizen groups and independent organizations may deploy observers or watchers to witness election processes in the U.S. Generally, the aim for these observers is to provide a layer of protection or transparency and to learn from and improve processes, which vary considerably by state. This webpage covers relevant laws and practices for multiple types of election observers nationwide.

The material is divided into four sections:

  • Overview: describes election observation practices in the U.S., including explanations of who can observe and what they can observe.
  • Table: Who Can Observe the Election Process provides 50-state information on election observation, including access for the public, for partisan poll watchers and for other observers. Please note that access to different aspects of the process may differ depending on the category of observers.
  • Legislative Action on Election Observation gathers all enactments since 2011 relating to election observers and poll watchers.
  • Methodology and Resources describes our approach and provides additional resources.

Please email suggestions or corrections to NCSL’s elections team.

Overview

Several kinds of groups can observe elections in the U.S. This study examined the level of access that members of the public have to observe; what partisan poll watchers or challengers (usually appointed by political parties) can observe; and what state statutes say about allowing other observers, such as those from nonpartisan civic organizations, international groups or academic institutions. NOTE: Terminology varies by state, and the interpretation of existing statutes can change over time. If you believe your state is not categorized correctly, please contact NCSL’s elections team.

The Public

Almost all states allow the public to view some parts of the election process, particularly the logic and accuracy testing of voting machines before an election, and often the process of counting ballots. For example:

  • Missouri only allows partisan poll watchers to be present at voting locations, but voting equipment testing is open to the public.
  • Arkansas only allows partisan poll watchers to observe at polling locations, but voting equipment testing and the processing and counting of absentee and paper ballots are open to the public.
  • Arizona allows the public to view all proceedings at the counting center and provides a live video recording of the tabulation room.
  • Florida allows the public to observe the process of verifying the number of voted ballots, unused ballots, provisional ballots and spoiled ballots to ensure the number corresponds with the number of ballots issued, but only partisan poll watchers may be present in each polling room or early voting location during the election.

Some states allow the public to have broad access to view the election process so long as they are not disruptive. In California, for example, observers may attend any and all phases of an election. Massachusetts requires elections to be held in public view, and anyone is permitted in polling locations (outside of a guardrail), and to witness ballot counting.

And in Oregon, where elections are conducted by mail, voters do not usually go to physical locations to vote, but the public may observe the processing and tabulation of ballots. County officials may also conduct tours or allow access to the public for educational or media purposes, not as official observers.

Partisan Poll Watchers or Challengers

In the U.S., voters representing political parties, candidates or groups favoring or opposing a ballot proposition can observe elections in most states. They are referred to by many different names, but are most commonly called poll watchers or challengers.

While partisan observers’ responsibilities vary by state, they generally watch the casting of ballots, testing of voting equipment and counting of ballots. Unlike other observers, partisan poll watchers and challengers have a specific or partisan interest in election results.

Poll watchers’ 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 permitted to interfere in the electoral process apart from reporting issues to polling place authorities and party officials.

Challengers also watch to ensure 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 casting either a regular or a provisional ballot.

Most states define the roles of partisan observers and specify how many can be present. See NCSL’s resource Poll Watchers and Challengers for details on how poll watchers are appointed, what qualifications they must have and what they are permitted to see and do.

Other Observers

Nonpartisan organizations

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 post-election audits or recounts. Others seek to view all preelection, Election Day and post-election processes. While some states have no statutory provisions to allow nonpartisan citizen observers, others grant special approval for them to watch the elections.

For example, in Illinois, nonpartisan observers from citizen organizations may observe at polling locations. Regulations require that observers must be registered to vote in Illinois, and in some cases the group must continually maintain an office in the state. Montana permits observers from any group having an interest in the election to observe at polling locations. Hawaii allows any person or nonvoter group authorized by the clerk to observe at any voter service center or place of ballot deposit for educational purposes. In Nebraska, a poll watcher may be any individual representing a state-based, national or international election monitoring organization and may observe at polling locations.

Like international observers, discussed below, 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.

Nonpartisan observation can provide a particularly important way for citizens to encourage accountability in the democratic system outside of party structures. 

International election observers

International nonpartisan organizations deploy teams of observers who are neither citizens nor 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.

See NCSL’s resource,  International Election Observation: Abroad and at Home, for additional details.

Academic observers

Academic observers are associated with higher education institutions and university initiatives. Many academic observers study elections with the 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 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 and effectiveness of an election. Academic observers are granted access at the county level and often depend on good relationships between observers and election officials.

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 process 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.

The Media

Although it is common to allow the media some access to the voting process, some states specifically permit or limit media access. For example, Delaware permits the media and people conducting exit polls to be within 50 feet of the polling place, but they may not talk to people who have not voted while in the 50-foot exclusion zone. In Oklahoma, members of the media are permitted in the polling place, but only for a period of five minutes or less. In Virginia, members of the media may visit and record or photograph inside the polling place for a reasonable and limited amount of time.

Table: Who Can Observe the Election Process in the U.S.

State-by-state details on what aspects of the election process are open to the public, to partisan poll watchers and to other observers are in the table below.

See Poll Watchers and Challengers for qualifications, accreditation processes, training and restrictions on partisan observers and poll watchers.

Who Can Observe the Election Process

State

Public Access

Access for Partisan Observers/Poll Watchers

Access for Other Observers

Alabama

Ala. Code §§17-11-11, 17-8-7, 17-16-21, 17-24-7; Ala. Admin. Code r. 307-X-1-.04, r. 820-2-10-.17, r. 307-X-1-.11

The public may observe testing of precinct ballot counters.

Poll watchers are authorized to observe the testing of precinct ballot counters. Each political party may appoint a watcher for each voting place to observe the conduct of the election, the opening of the polls, and remain at the polling place until the results of the election have been posted and voting machines sealed. They may observe absentee ballots and affidavits when they are called out during the count and may also observe all instances of hand-counted ballots.

The media may observe all instances of hand-counted ballots.

Alaska

Alaska Stat. §15.10.170; 6 AAC 25.010, 25.020

Public access is not specified.

Poll watchers may be present during voting hours, during ballot accounting and during the vote counting process.

Candidates not affiliated with a party or individuals representing an issue campaign/ballot measure may be accredited as poll watchers. International observers are not permitted (poll watchers must be citizens).

Arizona

Ariz. Rev. Stat.

§§16-449, 16-590, 16-621, 16-602(B), 16-643; 2019 Elections Procedures Manual 2019

Voting equipment testing is open to the public, political parties and the press from a public viewing area. All proceedings at the counting center are open to the public. 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. The official canvass of results is open to the public.

Political party representatives are permitted to observe at voting locations and central counting places for partisan elections. Poll watchers may observe the voting equipment testing from inside the room where it happens. Post-election audits are not subject to the live video recording and are only open to poll watchers, who may bring their own video camera to record it.

The proceedings at the central counting place may also be observed by up to three additional people representing a candidate for nonpartisan office or representing a political committee in support of or in opposition to a ballot measure, proposition or question.

Arkansas

Arkansas Code §§7-5-312, 7-5-603, 7-5-416, 7-4-105(b)

Voting equipment testing, the processing and counting of absentee ballots and paper ballots are all open to the public. The canvass of results and any recounts are conducted by the county boards of election commissioners and are held in public.

Partisan poll watchers include authorized representatives of a candidate or political party or a group seeking the passage or defeat of a measure on the ballot and may be present at a polling site, central counting location and absentee ballot counting. 

Partisan poll watchers include authorized representatives of a group seeking the passage or defeat of a measure on the ballot.

California

Cal Elec. Code §§2301, 15004, 15301, 15104, 15204, 15360, 15629;

Election Observations Rights and Responsibilities, California Secretary of State, rev. Sept 2022

There is a public review period for the certification of a ballot marking system. The processing of vote-by-mail ballots is open to the public, both prior to and after the election. The canvass, post-election audits and recounts are all open to the public.

Partisan and nonpartisan observers (defined as a bona fide association of citizens or a media organization) may attend any and all phases of the election. They may review the preparation and operation of tabulating devices, proceedings at polling places and early voting locations, activities at central counting facilities that handle vote-by-mail and provisional ballot processing, and the canvass.

Nonpartisan observers may have representatives in attendance at any and all phases of the election. 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.

Colorado

Colo. Rev. Stat. §§1-7-509(2), 1-7-108;

8 CCR 1505-1

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. 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.

Partisan poll watchers are permitted to observe each step in the conduct of the election, including setup and breakdown of voter service and polling centers prior to and including election day, ballot receipt and processing, signature verification of mail ballot envelopes, ballot duplication, ballot tabulation, provisional ballot processing, the canvass, recount and post-election audit.

Media observers may witness all election activities. Nonpartisan observers may be approved at the discretion of the secretary of state.

Connecticut

Conn. Gen. Stat. §§9-244, 9-235, 9-236, 9-242b; Procedure Manual for Counting Absentee Ballots, Secretary of the State of Connecticut, rev. 7/2013

The preparation, test voting and sealing of tabulators for the election is open to the public.

Absentee ballot counting at a central location is open to the public. The canvass of votes at the polling place, post-election audits and the recanvass (aka recount) are all open to the public.

Party watchers may be present for the testing and sealing of tabulators for the election and file a report that they were properly prepared and sealed. Partisan poll watchers are authorized to observe at election day polling places, including absentee ballot counting conducted at polling places. They are referred to as “unofficial checkers” or “party checkers” in statute and appointed by the partisan registrar.

Representatives of the news media shall be allowed to enter, remain within and leave any polling place or restricted area surrounding any polling place to observe the election. Students may enter polling places during certain times to observe the election.

Delaware

Delaware Code, Title 15, §§ 5008A, 4933, 4913, 5510A, 5611, 4977, 5701, 5012A

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. 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. The official canvass, recounts and post-election audits are open to the public.

The Elections Department shall mail written notices to the state chairperson of each party with candidates listed on the ballot, stating the time and place at which the voting device will be inspected. The state chairperson of each such political party may designate one representative to be present during the inspection. Partisan observers are permitted in the voting area. Partisan observers may also be present during public meetings when a department of elections may open absentee ballots. 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. Partisan observers may be present to observe the counting and tabulation of votes.

Media and persons conducting exit polls shall be permitted within the 50-foot exclusion zone but may not talk to persons who have not voted while in the 50-foot exclusion zone. Nonpartisan observers would be permitted in the voting area 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.

District of Columbia

D.C. Mun. Regs. §§3-706, 3-801.2, 3-816.6; D.C. Code Ann. §1-1001.09a

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. Post-election audits are open to the public. Space permitting, members of the public are given access to the location where recounts occur.

Each candidate and each proponent or opponent of a proposed ballot measure may petition the board for credentials authorizing poll watchers at any early voting centers, polling places and/or ballot counting places.

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, or at any ballot counting place.

Florida

Flor. Stat. Title IX §§101.5612, 101.58, 101.131, 101.5614, 101.5614, 101.591, §102.166(3)

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. 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. Post-election audits and any manual recounts are open to the public.

Partisan observers may examine the registration and election processes, and the condition, custody, and operation of voting systems. 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. 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.

Nonpartisan observers are not permitted. State appointed staff, upon direction of Department of State, may examine the registration and election processes, and the condition, custody, and operation of voting system.

Georgia

Code of Georgia §§ 21-2-374, 21-2-379.6, 21-2-379.25, 21-2-413 (f), 21-2-408(d), 21-2-406, 21-2-414(b), § 21-2-483(b), 21-2-498, Rule 183-1-15-.03

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. 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. Officials engaged in the conducting of elections shall perform their duties in public. 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. Counting of ballots at tabulating centers and precincts, post-election audits and recounts are open to the public.

Poll watchers may observe the conduct of the election before, during and after the polls close. A poll watcher may be permitted behind the enclosed space for the purpose of observing the conduct of the election and the counting and recording of votes. In counties or municipalities using direct recording electronic (DRE) voting systems or optical scanning voting systems poll watchers may serve in locations designated by the superintendent within the tabulating center. Such designated locations shall include the check-in area, the computer room, the duplication area, and such other areas as the superintendent may deem necessary to the assurance of fair and honest procedures in the tabulating center.

Nonpartisan observers 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.

Hawaii

Hawaii Rev. Stat. §§ 16-42, 11-132, 16-47, 16-45, 16-24

Counting is open to observers and to the public as space permits.

Poll watchers observe the conduct of the election at the polling place or early walk-in location during hours of operation. Electronic voting equipment is subject to inspection, audit, and experimental testing, by qualified observers, before and after the election. At least two official observers must be present when absentee ballots are prepared for counting. Observers may request to conduct a manual audit.

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.

Idaho

Idaho Stat. §§34-2416, 34-2304

Recounts are open to the public.

Partisan observers may examine voting machines prior to the election and be present at polling locations. A watcher serving at a central counting station may be present at any time the station is open for the purpose of processing or preparing to process election results and until the election officers complete their duties at the station.

Access for other types of observers is not specified.

Illinois

10 ILCS 5/24A-9, 5/24B-9, 5/24C-9, 5/17-23, 5/19A-60, 5/19-10, 5/19-10, 5/19-7, 5/17-23, 5/24A-1

Voting equipment testing is open to the public.

Partisan poll watchers must be affiliated with a political party or part of an organized group of proponents of opponents of a ballot proposition and can observe at polling places. Poll watchers may observe early voting and may be present where vote-by-mail ballots are counted, and observe election judges comparing signatures on ballot envelopes to those on file. After the polls close poll watchers are authorized to remain until the canvass of votes is completed and observe the post-election audit.

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. Nonpartisan observers may observe the same activities as poll watchers.

Indiana

IC 3-11-13-23, 3-6-8-1, 3-6-10-1, 3-6-8-7, 3-11-8-15, 3-11.5-3, 3-11.7-4, 3-12-6-21, 3-12-11-17, 3-12-3.5-8

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. Central count of absentee ballots may be observed by the public in an area designated by the county election board. After Election Day the county board of elections meets to determine whether or not each provisional ballot is counted. This meeting is public and is also open to partisan and media observers. Recounts for local are open to the public. 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.

Partisan poll watchers are authorized to observe at election day polling places, at early voting satellite offices and at the central count of absentee ballot. Candidates affected by recounts may appoint watchers to the process.

The media are authorized to observe at election day polling places, at early voting satellite offices and at the central count of absentee ballot. Access for nonpartisan observers is not permitted.

Iowa

Iowa Code §§52.35, 49.104, 49.104, 50.1A, 50.46, 50.51;

Iowa Admin. Code 721—26.106

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. After the polls close, the process of counting the ballots is open to the public. The canvass of votes and recounts are open to the public.

Partisan poll watchers include those appointed by political parties, by non-party political organizations, candidates who are “nominated by petition” and groups opposing or supporting public measures on the ballot. These poll watchers may observe at polling locations and absentee ballot counting locations. Partisan observers may also observe the post-election audit.

Members of the media may observe at polling locations. Persons interested in conducting and attending education voting programs may be permitted at the discretion of state and local election officials.

Kansas

Kan. Stat. §§25-4411, 25-3005, 25-3005a, 25-3005, 25-3009, 25-3107; 2019 Kansas Election Standards Chapter II

Elections are conducted as openly and with as much public access as possible but recognizing the need for control to preserve the secrecy of individuals’ ballots. At most points in the electoral process, interested individuals and groups may observe the proceedings at the precinct polling sites, at the county election office, or at the county or state canvass. Voting equipment testing is open to the public. Post-election audits and recounts are conducted in a public setting, and observers may attend.

Partisan observers, referred to as authorized poll agents, and nonpartisan observers if approved, may be present at the time and place of casting ballots and observe the proceedings at all original, intermediate and final canvasses of elections.

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. Nonpartisan observers, including international groups, may be granted permission to observe on a case-by-case basis.

Kentucky

Ky. Rev. Stat. §§117.165, 117.235, 117.315, 117.085, 117.275, 117.305

Voting equipment testing is open to the public.

Partisan observers, referred to as challengers, may be present at polling places and at in-person absentee early voting locations for qualified voters, may witness the tally at polling places after they have closed, and observe absentee ballot counting. If a discrepancy is found in the canvass, a recanvass is conducted and partisan observers may be present.

Nonpartisan observers are not explicitly permitted but may be accepted on a case-by-case basis. The media can observe a recanvass.

Louisiana

LRS 18:1373, 18:435, 18:427, 18:1313, 18:1453; Poll Watchers Booklet, rev. 6/22

Voting equipment testing is open to the public.

Partisan observers are admitted to all parts of the polling place during the election and during the counting and tabulation of votes, and at recounts. 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 and during the tabulation of absentee ballots, including in cases when tabulation begins prior to the closing of the polls.

Any qualified voter of the state of Louisiana may serve as an observer.

Maine

21-A M.R.S.A. §§854, 627, 759, 695, 737-A

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. A member of the public may request to inspect absentee ballot applications and envelopes before they are processed. Ballot counting is conducted in public.

Partisan observers may be present at polling places outside of the guardrail. 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. Partisan observers may be present at a recount.

Additional party workers and others are allowed if there is sufficient space at the polling place.

Maryland

Md. Election Law Code Ann. § 10-311, 10-308, 10-301.1, 10-314, 11-202, 11-309; COMAR 33.07.07, 33.12.03.02 ; Maryland State Board of Elections Instructions and Information for Challengers, Watchers, and Other Election Observers, rev. June 1, 2022

Pre-election demonstrations of voting systems; the return of supplies on election night; canvass of early voting results; counting of provisional and absentee ballots; and verification of vote count and certification of election are all open to the public. Post-election audits and recounts are also open to the public.

Watchers and challengers are entitled to observe at polling locations, including early voting locations, and may remain in the polling place until all post-voting tasks have been completed and the election judges leave the polling place. Poll watchers and challengers may be designated by the State Board of Elections for any polling place in the state; a local board of elections for any polling place in the county; candidate, including write-in candidates; recognized political party; or any other group supporting or opposing a candidate principle or proposition on the ballot that has formed a political committee.

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.

Massachusetts

Mass. Gen. Law Ann. ch. 54 §§94, 109A; 950 CMR §§54.00, 54.04(22), 54.05(1), 46.00; Secretary of the Commonwealth Elections Division, Election Advisory #20-10 Regarding Election Observers; Election Recounts, Secretary of the Commonwealth, p.5

The election is held in public view, including voting equipment testing, at polling locations (including early voting) outside of the guardrail, the opening of absentee ballot envelopes, ballot counting, post-election audits, and recounts.

Any person can be an observer, but those representing campaigns are given priority when space is limited in a poling location.

Any person can be an observer, but those representing campaigns are given priority when space is limited in a poling location.

Michigan

M.C.L.A. §§ 168.798, 168.730, 168.733, 168.765a, 168.730, 168.874;

State of Michigan Secretary of State, The Appointment, Rights, and Duties of Election Challengers and Poll Watchers, rev. May 2022; Michigan Department of State, Post-Election Audit Manual

Elections are an open process that may be observed by any interested person. Voting equipment testing, ballot counting, post-election audits and recounts are open to the public.

There are “election challengers” and “poll watchers,” though challengers having greater access to the process.

Nonpartisan observers could fall into either the election challenger or poll watcher categories, but challengers must be registered voters in Michigan.

Minnesota

Minn. Stat. Ann. §§206.83, 204C.06, 204C.07, 203B.212(5), 204C.07, 206.85, 206.86, 204C.07; Minn. Admin. Rules 8235.0600; conversation with state election director in 2016 and 2020.

Voting equipment testing, counting of absentee ballots, proceedings at counting center, post-election audits and recounts are all open to the public.

Partisan observers and the media may enter the polling place during voting hours to observe the voting process. Partisan observers must be residents of the state and are referred to as “challengers.” Challengers may be appointed by partisan or nonpartisan candidates and their statutory role is to challenge a person’s eligibility to vote, based on personal knowledge.

The media may enter the polling place during voting hours. 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.

Mississippi

Miss. Code Ann. §§ 23-15-521, 23-15-577, 23-15-581, § 23-15-523

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. The counting of ballots after the polls close is open to the public and all proceedings at a counting center are open to the public.

Partisan observers may observe at polling locations.

Not specified.

Missouri

Missouri Rev. Stat. §§ 115.233, 115.409, 115.105, 115.107, 115.601; 15 CSR 30-10.110

Voting equipment testing are post-election audits are open to the public.

Partisan observers, referred to as challengers, may be present at the polling place until all ballots are cast on the day of the election, may be present at each location where absentee ballots are counted, and may observe the counting of votes.

International observers who have registered with the election authority may be admitted to a polling place. Nonpartisan observers directly involved in requesting a recount may observe the process.

Montana

Mont. Code Ann. §§13-17-212, 12-12-121, 12-12-121, 13-13-241, 13-15-101, 13-13-241, 12-12-120, 13-17-506, 13-16-411

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. Absentee ballot preparation, which includes signature comparisons and preparing the ballots to be counted, and any official vote count and tabulation, including absentee ballots, is open to the public. Post-election audits and recounts are open to the public.

Partisan observers may observe at polling locations, vote counting procedures after the closing of the poll, and all entries of the results of the elections.

Nonpartisan observers, defined as any group having an interest in the election, may request the election administrator to allow observers at any polling location. Recounts are open to the media.

Nebraska

Neb. Rev. Stat. §§32-1013, 32-1115, 32-1525

Not specified.

Poll watchers appointed by each political party, unaffiliated candidates, or an organization of persons interested in a question on the ballot may be present at polling locations.

A poll watcher may be an individual representing a state-based, national, or international election monitoring organization and observe at polling locations.

Nevada

Nev. Rev. Stat. §§293.274, 293.385, 293B.330, 293B.335, 293.363, 293B.353, 293B.380; Nev. Admin. Code 293.245, 293.311, 293.255

The conduct of voting at a polling place is open to the public and anyone may observe. Members of the general public may observe the preparation of absentee ballots at central counting boards; the counting of absentee ballots; the handling of ballots after the polls close; delivery of the sealed container of ballots to a receiving center or central counting place; counting of ballots at polling and at central counting places; and post-election audits. Observers are required to sign a form indicating they understand prohibitions at polling locations and must wear a name tag while observing.

Not specified.

Election processes are broadly open to the public, not including any person who: gathers information for communication to the public; is employed or engaged by or has contracted with a newspaper, periodical, press association, or radio or television station; and is acting solely within his or her professional capacity.

New Hampshire

NH Rev. Stat. Ann. 656:42, 666.4, 659:63, 659:49, 659:50, 660:4, 666:5, 654:7-c; New Hampshire Secretary of State Election Procedure Manual: 2022-2023

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. Any person has the right to observe in-person voter registration, where it is conducted. Polling locations and ballot counting (that occurs at the polling location) are open to the public, who may observe from behind a guardrail. Absentee ballot processing occurs at the polling location and is open to public observation. Recounts are also conducted in public.

A challenger may be appointed by the state political party to observe ballot counting outside a guardrail, but where the challenger can see and hear the hand-counting of ballots, allow a line-of-sight to the electronic ballot counting device, and hear voter’s names announced during check-in.

Election processes are broadly open to the public.

New Jersey

NJSA 19:53A-8, 19:48-6, 19:7-5, 19:15-8, 19:53A-8(b), 19:7-5, 19:6-28, 19:61-9, 19:28-3

Automatic tabulating equipment testing; proceedings at the counting center; all proceedings of canvass boards; post-election audits; and recounts are open to the public.

Political party observers may examine voting equipment before they are sent to polling locations. Partisan observers (referred to as challengers) may be present while votes are cast, but others are not permitted in the polling place. Challengers may be present while votes are being counted.

No one other than partisan poll watchers (challengers) are permitted in the polling place.

New Mexico

NM Stat. Ann. §§1-1-3.2, 1-2-25, 1-2-29, §1-2-25(6), 1-2-31, 1-2-32, 1-14-13.2; NMAC 1.10.12.11; New Mexico Secretary of State Election Challengers, Watchers & Observers Information

Not specified.

An election-related organization or any group of three candidates for elected office may appoint watchers. The chair of each political party may appoint challengers for each polling location. Political parties may also appoint observers to county and state canvasses.

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, in an alternate or mobile voting location and in the room where absentee ballots are counted. Nonpartisan observers may be appointed to observe county and state canvasses, post-election audits and recounts.

New York

NY Election Law §§ 7–207, 8–500, 8–506, 9–102, 9–209, 9–211

Not specified.

Poll watchers are designated by candidates, political parties, or independent organizations that have candidates on the ballot. Poll watchers may examine voting equipment before it is sent out to polling locations; be present at polling locations; be present during the examination of absentee ballot envelopes; observe the canvass of votes at the polling location, and the canvass of absentee ballots; and the post-election audit.

There is no provision for nonpartisan or international observers, but it may be possible to make arrangements with county boards of elections.

North Carolina

N.C.G.S. §§ 163-165.7, 163-166.3, 163-45, 163-48, 163-227.6, 163-234, 163-166.10, 163-182.2(3), 163-182.7; 08 NCAC 04 .0307, 08 NCAC 10B .0105; North Carolina Board of Elections, Tips for Monitoring or Observing the Election at Polling Sites

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. Procedures for closing the polling place are open to public inspection. Absentee ballot counting is open to the public. 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. 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. The vote count is open to the public and recounts provide opportunities for public observation.

Observers appointed by political parties are permitted within voting locations, including early voting locations (called one-stop voting in North Carolina).

Anyone has the right to monitor an election outside the voting place, from outside the buffer zone.

North Dakota

NDCC § 16.1-05-09

Not specified.

Election observers are not specific to political parties or candidates.

Election observers are allowed access to all stages of the election process, including the certification of election technologies, early voting, absentee voting, vote tabulation and recounts.

Ohio

Ohio Rev. Code §§ 3506.14, 3505.21, 3505.21, 3509.06, 3505.21, 3505.331(C), 3515.04; Ohio Secretary of State Election Official Manual, rev. 2/2022

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. The announcement of post-election audit results is public.

Political party and candidate observers, referred to as challengers, may observe during the casting of ballots, which includes in-person absentee voting and at precinct polling places on election day. Challengers may be present from the opening until the closing of the polls on election day, as well as after the polls close. Challengers may be present at any time which a board of elections processes absentee voter’s ballots before the time for counting those ballots and 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. They are permitted to observe post-election audits and recounts.

Nonpartisan and international observers are prohibited.

Oklahoma

Oklahoma Stat. §§26-9-115, 26-7-130, 26-7-130, 26-7-112, 26-14-123, 26-7-130, 26-8-113, 26-8-114

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.

Partisan poll watchers 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. No one other than voters and election officials are permitted in the polling place during voting hours. Poll watchers, 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. Poll watchers may be present at any place where an official count is being conducted. 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.

Nonpartisan observers are not permitted.

Members of the media may be permitted inside the polling place for a period not to exceed five minutes.

Oregon

Ore. Rev. Stat. §§ 254.525, 254.482, 254.532, 258.211; Oregon Secretary of State, Vote by Mail Procedures Manual, rev. 9/2022

Vote tabulation equipment testing is open to the public. 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. Members of the public may observe all ballot processes except those that are confidential. Post-election audits are also open to the public.

If a county is conducting a recount regarding a candidate the affected candidate or an elector authorized in writing by an affected candidate, and an elector authorized in writing by each major or minor political party may be present to watch the recount.

County officials may conduct tours and/or access to the public for educational and/or media purposes, not classified as official observers.

Pennsylvania

25 P.S. §§ 3031.10, 3011, 2687, 3146.8, 2650

 Not specified.

Partisan poll watchers may be present during the preparation of voting equipment; at polling locations and may stay until the time that the counting of votes is complete; when absentee and mail-in ballot envelopes are opened, and when the ballots are counted and recorded. Poll watchers may be present at the tabulation or canvassing of unofficial and official returns, and any recount or recanvass.

Not specified.

Rhode Island

R.I.G.L. § 17-19-14, 17-19-22, 17-22-2, 17-19-37.4; Rhode Island Board of Elections, Guide to Election Recounts, rev. 11/2020

The conduct of elections is open to the public, including voting equipment testing; opening of mail ballot envelopes; the counting, canvassing and tabulation of mail ballots at the state board of elections. There is a railed space where counting takes place and while the general public must stay outside of the rail.

Partisan observers are permitted to sit at a table in the room where voting is conducted. 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.

South Carolina

S.C. Code Ann. §§7-13-1390, 7-13-860, 7-13-35; South Carolina Election Commission, Poll Managers Handbook, rev. September 2022

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. Voting equipment testing; the process of examining envelopes containing absentee ballots; the canvassing process; and counting of ballots after the polls close is open to the public.

Partisan poll watchers and members of the public (observers) may be present at the polling location in a designated area where they can observe the entire election process, including the canvass of votes. Watchers should be stationed nearby, behind, but within earshot of the check-in table. Observers are stationed completely out of the way of the entire process and limited to broadly viewing the activity within the polling place.

Not specified, but members of the public can observe at polling locations and early voting locations in a designated area and observe the canvassing of votes.

South Dakota

S.D.C.L. §§ 12-17B-5, 12-18-9, 12-19-44; SDLRC 5:02:19:04

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. Any person (other than a candidate on the ballot at that polling place) may observe the voting process, the counting process and the absentee counting process. Any person may observe a recount.

Poll watchers are appointed by candidates or political parties and may observe voting and counting activities at polling locations, along with the public.

Not specified, but activities at voting and counting locations are open to public observation.

Tennessee

Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 2-7-104, 2-20-103

Post-election audits are open to the public.

Partisan observers may observe at polling locations and the counting of ballots, including absentee ballots. They may also

Nonpartisan observers, defined as any organization of citizens interested in preserving the purity of elections and in guarding against abuse of the elective franchise may observe at polling locations and the counting of ballots, including absentee ballots. Observers must be residents of the state.

Texas

Texas Election Code §§127.096, 129.023, 33.059, 61.001, 61.003, 33.001 – 33.061

Voting equipment testing is open to the public.

Partisan poll watchers may observe the inspection and securing of voting equipment before the election. Watchers may be present at each polling place and early voting location. Poll watchers can be appointed to observe the ballot board process and count mail ballots and provisional ballots and may be present at each central counting station.

Access for nonpartisan observers is not permitted. Bystanders are not permitted, and loitering is a Class C Misdemeanor.

Utah

UCA 20A-3a-801, 20A-4-303

Voting equipment testing and the canvass is open to the public.

Not specified. Any registered or preregistered voter may register as a poll watcher.

Any registered or preregistered voter can observe at polling locations, early voting sites, ballot processing locations, central counting locations, post-election audits, the canvass, certification of results, and recounts.

Vermont

17 V.S.A. §§ 2493, 2564, 2546a, 2581, 2602c

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. Anyone may observe the election process from outside of the guardrail. If absentee ballots are processed before election day, the public may be present and inspect the certificate envelopes. Anyone may observe outside the guardrail or within a designated area in which ballots are being counted. Recounts are open to the public.

Anyone may observe the election process from outside of the guardrail, but representatives of parties, candidates and committees supporting or opposing public questions on the ballot may also challenge a person’s right to vote.

Anyone may observe the election process from outside the guardrail.

Virginia

VA Code Ann. §§ 24.2-633, 24.2-604.5, 24.2-604.4, 24.2-604.5, 24.2-671, 24.2-671.1, 24.2-802.1

The canvass of the election is an open public meeting.

Partisan observers are authorized and must be qualified voters of the Commonwealth. Partisan observers may observe voting equipment testing and sealing to prepare for voting. Partisan observers are permitted at central absentee voter precincts where absentee ballots are received, counted and recorded. Since the central absentee precinct is considered a precinct, it falls under the same rules for observers as other precincts. Partisan observers may attend the meeting where results are reported, observe the post-election audit, and recounts.

Nonpartisan observers, referred to as “additional neutral observers,” may be authorized by local election officials. Members of the media may visit and film or photograph inside the polling place for a reasonable and limited amount of time.

Washington

RCW 29A.40.100, 29A.60.170, 29A.12.130, 29A.64.041

Voting equipment testing is open to the public. The proceedings at counting centers are open to the public.

County auditors must request that the major political parties appoint partisan observers. Appointed partisan and nonpartisan observers may be present for the post-election audit. Partisan observers may witness a recount and post-election audit.

County auditors have the discretion to also request that nonpartisan observers be appointed. Nonpartisan observers may be requested by the county auditor from any organization.

West Virginia

W. Va. Code §§3-4A-26, 3-1-37, 3-4A-27, 3-6-9, 3-4A-28; WV State Rules 153-20-6.2

Voting equipment testing, proceedings at the central counting center, the canvass, post-election audits and recounts are open to the public.

Poll watchers are not permitted in the polling places.

Observers are not permitted in polling locations.

Wisconsin

Wis. Stat. §§ 5.84, 7.41, 6.88, 7.52, 7.51, 7.60, 9.01(3)

Voting equipment testing is open to the public and any member of the public may be present at any polling place or any place where in-person absentee voting is taking place. Absentee ballot processing and counting is open to the public. The local and county canvass, post-election audits and recounts are open to the public.

Anyone can observe election processes, with no special access for partisan observers.

Anyone can observe the conduct of the election and/or an election administration event. Observers may be present at a facility served by special voting deputies, a municipal clerk’s office during in-person absentee voting, at a polling place on Election Day, at a central counting location and at a recount.

Wyoming

Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 22-10-108, 22-11-104, 22-15-109

Not specified.

Partisan observers may be present for voting equipment testing and may serve at polling places.

Not specified.

Legislative Action on Election Observation

There have been one to four enactments each of the last 10 years relating to who can be an election 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 of any kind:

  • Louisiana SB 74 (2022) clarifies that those who require assistance with voting may serve as poll watchers.
  • Oklahoma HB 3321 (2022) requires poll watchers to serve in person and not via electronic devices.
  • Utah HB 387 (2022) Permits preregistered voters (those who are under 18 years old) to serve as poll watchers, permits poll watchers to observe the ballot curing process and requires ballot adjudication in larger cities to be projected on a screen large enough to be viewed by watchers. 
  • Arizona SB 1835  (2021) requires poll watchers to be registered voters in the state.
  • Texas SB 1 (2021) requires a training program for poll watchers and requires watchers to present a certificate of completion when reporting for observation. The law adds to the list of processes that poll watchers can observe all activities relating to closing a polling place, ballot signature verification, ballot curing and voter assistance efforts. SB 1 also requires poll watchers to take an oath, establishes a penalty for election officials who knowingly refuse to accept a valid certificate for observation, permits election officials to call law enforcement for the removal of a poll watcher who is in violation of the law, and establishes legal remedies for watchers who believe they were unlawfully prevented from observing election processes.
  • 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 went 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) clarified that international election observers may have uniform and nondiscriminatory access to all stages of the election process that are open to the public.
  • Tennessee SB 1945 (2016) prohibited the appointment of a candidate’s spouse to serve as an election observer.
  • Montana HB 529 (2015) prohibited a candidate from serving as a poll watcher.
  • New York AB 5075 (2014) prohibited candidates for public office in a given election from acting as poll watchers.
  • Alaska HB 104 (2013) required 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 went 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 who apply.
  • Louisiana HB 563 (2019) required 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 which 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 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:

  • Montana SB 93 (2021) permits poll watchers to observe at mail ballot deposit locations (drop boxes).
  • Texas HB 1128 (2021) clarifies that poll watchers may be present in polling places, at meetings of early voting ballot boards and in central counting stations.
  • Arkansas SB 488 (2021)  allows poll watchers to inspect voter statements and ballots during an election, even though these documents are protected under the state’s public records law.
  • Florida SB 90 (2021) requires poll watchers to wear identification badges while observing and allows each political party and each candidate to have one watcher with viewing access to ballot signature verification.
  • Hawaii HB 1248 (2019) enacted mail voting 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 being said, but that observation shall not violate the secret vote or otherwise interfere with the election.

Methodology and Additional Resources

The information on this webpage was compiled in 2016 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. The information was updated in 2020 and 2022.

Please contact NCSL’s elections team with comments or corrections.