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Elections Q&As for Lawmakers: Do Poll Watchers Increase Voter Confidence?

Poll watchers have become focal points in discussions about electoral integrity and voter trust. But can these observers make a difference in how Americans trust their votes are being counted?

By Lesley Kennedy  |  February 28, 2024

About this series: NCSL hosted legislators and legislative staff in December 2023 to answer common questions surrounding election processes and options, with an eye toward bill drafting in 2024 and beyond. Experts delved into topics ranging from absentee and mail voting and the role of poll watchers to technology and maintaining clean voter rolls. State Legislatures News broke down the questions and answers to help inform lawmakers on the intricacies of elections. Check Elections Q&As for Lawmakers often for more information.

The Expert: Lauren Prather, associate professor of international relations, UC San Diego

The role of poll watchers has become a focal point in discussions about electoral integrity and voter trust. But can the watchful eye of these observers make a difference in how Americans trust their votes are being counted?

Prather, who has extensively researched international election observation, says the global norm is to invite nonpartisan observers to monitor elections.

“By about 2015, 80% of elections around the world had at least one international monitoring group,” she says, noting the rise of nonpartisan observers globally. This contrasts starkly with the U.S. practice of predominantly using party-affiliated poll watchers.

And these observers aren’t just there for show. “They’re documenting the election process, noting any irregularities, making them public and increasing transparency in the process,” Prather says.

Top Two Takeaways

  • The presence of nonpartisan observers, both domestic and international, can increase voter confidence in the election process when these observers are perceived as unbiased and competent.
  • In contrast, the involvement of partisan poll watchers tends to decrease voter confidence in the United States.

The academic consensus is that nonpartisan poll watchers generally deter fraud and provide feedback to election officials. “On average, research shows that election observers do improve election quality,” Prather says, although she acknowledges that voter confidence is a nuanced issue.

Prather’s research suggests that under certain conditions, such as perceived impartiality and capability, international observers can positively influence public trust. “If observers are perceived to be capable and unbiased, they increase confidence,” she says.

Recent studies in the U.S. reveal a complex picture.

“Americans really don’t like partisan poll watchers to have access to elections,” Prather notes, with findings indicating a decrease in confidence when voters are aware of partisan poll watchers’ involvement. In contrast, “nonpartisan monitors from the United States increase confidence.

“The sum total of the research suggests that poll watchers can improve the quality of elections and voter confidence under the right conditions.”

Lesley Kennedy is NCSL’s director of publishing and digital content.

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