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Who’s Watching the Polls? Rules Vary by State

November 4, 2022

Poll watchers have been an integral part of the U.S. election landscape since at least 1934. That’s when Joseph P. Harris’ “Election Administration in the United States” was published. In it, he stresses the right, under state laws, for these observers to do their part in potentially deterring fraud and helping their parties get out the vote, while acknowledging the potential for partisan poll watchers to obstruct election processes.

Election laws make it clear partisan poll watchers have a role and rights, but they can’t impede voting.

On the first point, he writes, “Any election officer who willfully refuses to accord to any duly accredited watcher or to any voter or candidate any right given him by state law, or by the rules, regulations or instructions of the state board of election commissioners … is guilty of a felony. …”

And on the second point: “In case any watcher attempts to obstruct the conduct of the election, or to intimidate voters, engage in campaigning, or otherwise violate any provisions of the election laws or regulations he shall be warned, and if he continues, he shall be required to leave the polls.”

The conduct of elections has changed in many ways since 1934, but the laws concerning partisan poll watchers have remained, in essence, the same: They have a role and rights, but they can’t impede voting. NCSL has updated its resource identifying poll watcher qualifications, training and accreditation processes, as well as what watchers are permitted or prohibited from doing. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has compiled state guides for poll watchers from many states; reviewing them makes it clear that each state has its own approach.

State Laws Not Always Clear

Most states are clear that watchers must be residents of the jurisdiction, or at least the state, and that accreditation is required in advance. Laws are not always clear on what parts of election processes can be observed, how observers are to be trained (and by whom), how technology can play a role (an example: livestreaming processes), or how questions or disputes are to be resolved.

But that’s changing, at least in some states. In 2021 and 2022, nine enactments in eight states addressed who can be a poll watcher, what they can observe, the use of tech and more.

No one knows if Harris would be surprised to see that poll watchers are still very much part of the scene 88 years later, but it’s a safe bet he’d be pleased that lawmakers are keeping up with the times.

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