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Poll Watchers and Election Observers: 6 Questions for Lawmakers

Clarifying observers’ responsibilities can help ensure trustworthy results and boost voter confidence.

By NCSL Staff  |  May 28, 2024

As legislators consider ways to boost voter confidence in election outcomes, they may be thinking of post-election audits, voter registration modernization and communications campaigns to get out the good news that their state—and all states—have good (if not foolproof) processes in place that lead to accurate and trustworthy results.

They can also consider the role played by poll watchers, who often work on behalf of political parties. “The U.S. system of elections relies on election observation to enhance transparency of the process and to secure voter trust,” says Rebecca Green, co-director of William and Mary Law School’s Election Law Program.

With that in mind, Green and Wendy Underhill, NCSL’s director of elections and redistricting, came up with a list of six questions legislators can consider if they decide to enhance or clarify the roles and responsibilities that poll watchers and election observers play.

1. What Parts of the Process Can Be Observed?

Does the scope of permissible observation match election procedures individuals might seek to observe? State observer statutes generally reflect the outdated assumption that voting takes place exclusively on Election Day at neighborhood polling places, failing to account for trends of early in-person voting, vote center and absentee/mail voting, and post-election processes. States have increasingly begun to match election observation policies with voting and ballot processing realities, with many states explicitly granting or denying observers access to nontraditional voting locations and/or administrative procedures before, during and after elections.

2. Who Is Permitted to Observe?

Partisan observers have been part of U.S. elections processes for decades. As elections evolve, and as new pressures on the system emerge, the challenge is ensuring election observers can serve their central function: to promote public trust in election outcomes. Who serves as observers, how they are credentialed, whether residency or voter registration requirements apply, and how best to leverage observers’ partisan affiliations are key questions to grapple with. Most states rely on an adversarial model, allowing political parties and candidates to designate observers to represent them. What role could or should nonpartisan observers play in the process? Important challenges include partisan observer recruitment (especially in areas that are not politically diverse) and how observer findings are communicated to the public.

3. How Should Rules Governing Observers Be Developed?

Election observation entails complex interactions between observers, election workers and voters both during and after elections. As in other areas of election rulemaking, consulting with constituent groups (election officials, voters, partisan representatives, attorneys and other stakeholders) can provide key insights to ensure rules governing observation serve their intended purposes.

4. How Should Technology Be Used?

What types of technology are permissible? Which observers—if any—can use technology and for what purposes? Some election offices livestream ballot processing and other functions. Livestreaming can be limited to screens available only to observers physically present in election facilities or can be made available to the public online. While livestreaming is usually adopted in the name of transparency, without context, livestreaming may confuse, leading to misinterpretation. Defining what type of technology can be used in the election administration process, who can use it, and how information and images can be contextualized are important matters to examine.

5. How Should Observers Be Trained?

Who is responsible for training observers? What should the scope of training be? What parts of the election process are important for observers to be aware of to maximize their observation and minimize disruption? While observation can play a crucial role in promoting transparency and trust in the democratic process, poorly trained observers might disrupt election processes and could violate voter privacy. Election administrators are responsible for overseeing the conduct of observers, from verifying their eligibility to delineating what they can see and do while observing. In these efforts, election officials receive varying levels of administrative and state support. Most states do not require poll observers to undergo training before serving as an observer; few states have clear, publicly accessible guides to educate observers about election administration. often, training is often conducted by organizations or political parties with which the election observer is associated and with few checks to ensure training materials are accurate or complete.

6. What Mechanisms of Dispute Resolution Are Best?

Election designers are wise to think through how observers should report problems and whether reporting should be formal or informal. States might consider whether an administrative dispute resolution process that is easy and swift—and clearly defined before the election—might contribute to ensuring election observation serves transparency and public trust goals.

As the list below demonstrates, legislators have been considering these very questions in the last few years, updating poll watcher/election observer statutes to ensure laws keep up with current realities. In 2023 and 2024:

  • Arkansas (HB 1457) laid out poll watchers’ rights and related procedures.
  • Colorado (SB 276) defined poll watcher roles for observing signature verification and vote counting, and the number of watchers allowed, based on space limitations.
  • Connecticut (HB 7001)gave party representatives the right to view ballots during recanvassing and authorizes election officials to remove from the premises anyone who causes disturbances during a recanvass. 
  • Kansas (SB 221) allowed poll observers to be present at recounts and audits, in addition to canvasses.
  • North Dakota (SB 2292)required polling places be arranged in a way that allows observers to see and hear goings-on without infringing on voter privacy.
  • South Dakota (HB 1182) stipulated that members of the public can observe voting and counting, so long as they do not interfere with poll workers or poll watchers, and that polling places be set up to allow poll watchers and observers to see and hear well.
  • Washington (SB 5843) prohibited election observers from touching ballots and election materials.

For more on poll watchers, see NCSL’s Poll Watchers and Challengers webpage. For more on election observation generally and laws governing international election observers in the U.S. specifically, see NCSL’s Policies for Election Observers and NCSL’s International Election Observation Abroad and at Home. See Rebecca Green’s Election Observation Post-2020 for additional insights.

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