With the 2022 midterms upon us—Tuesday, Nov. 8 is Election Day in the U.S.—it means that poll watching will be in effect.
The otherwise routine practice in which individuals appointed by political parties simply observe the election process is receiving more attention this cycle. This comes amid concerns that election deniers, recruited by Republicans to watch polls, could cause mischief at polling locations.
There’ve been reports of confrontations between voters and poll watchers for some weeks now. As if election-suspicious poll watchers hanging out at polling locations wasn’t enough disruptive paranoia for one election cycle, there’ve also been reports of armed vigilantes intimidating voters at ballot drop-off sites.
This all comes as election workers are quitting en masse amid an increase in threats and harassment.
Blaine Saito, assistant professor of law at Northeastern, has worked the polls in Boston and Washington, D.C. Saito says that poll watchers don’t often interfere with the operation, but will occasionally challenge a voter’s eligibility to vote. Not all poll watchers everywhere have the ability to challenge voters, as the rules vary by state.
Saito, who will be working the polls Tuesday in Boston, says challenges to voter eligibility—which appear to be happening at an unprecedented rate this cycle—can derail the process. Challenges can come in the form of direct complaints from citizen poll watchers during real-time voting, which tie up election staff, or mass legal challenges brought by activist groups and others.
Given the current political climate, Saito says he anticipates more challenges to voter qualifications in precincts across the U.S.
“That could lead to longer lines at polling places,” he says.
Eligibility varies by state, but every state requires that voters are U.S. citizens, residents of the state they are voting in, and are at least 18 years old to legally cast a ballot.
The difference between poll watchers and poll workers?
What are the laws governing what poll watchers can and can’t do—and how does their role differ from that of poll workers?
“Poll watchers should not be confused with poll workers, who are retained by voting jurisdictions to perform certain functions on Election Day,” says Costas Panagopoulos, head of Northeastern’s political science department.
Poll watching rules differ quite dramatically state-by-state, Panagopoulos says. Part of the purpose of poll watching is to monitor the voting process and ensure election integrity. Panagopoulos says poll watchers are ordinary people without specific expertise, although they generally receive some training from their respective parties or campaigns about how the process(es) should be carried out.
Even though they are often partisans appointed by politicians, poll watchers cannot campaign on behalf of a candidate or cause while performing in their role.
Poll workers, on the other hand, are there to facilitate actual voting, from checking voters in to processing and counting (and recounting) ballots. Poll workers can include groups of people encompassing “state employees, temporary contractors or volunteers,” according to CNN. Other election officials, who are part of the local government, are often present while voting is taking place at polling operations as well.
“Sometimes the boards of election will have other officials present to help out, meaning there can often be quite a few people at these polling stations,” Panagopoulos says. Some states do not allow poll watchers to interact with voters as a way to prevent voter intimidation or harassment; but there is a movement afoot nationwide to expand the powers of poll watchers, which includes, in some places, letting them observe voters at closer distances.
What to do if your vote is challenged
In many states, if your vote is challenged by a poll watcher, you can give a sworn statement that you satisfy voter eligibility requirements and proceed to cast a regular ballot, according to the ACLU. If your name is not on the list of registered voters, you can ask for a provisional ballot.
“After Election Day, election officials must investigate whether you’re qualified and registered to vote; and if so, they must count your provisional ballot,” the ACLU says.
Jeremy R. Paul, a professor of law and former dean of Northeastern’s School of Law, says that despite the increase in electron paranoia, he doesn’t anticipate that there will be any voter fraud this election cycle. There are simply no real incentives to break the law, he says.
“There’s not a lot of people who are willing to bear the risk of a felony conviction just to add one vote, so voter fraud is an unlikely crime,” Paul says.
“The 2020 election was the most carefully scrutinized election in our country’s history,” Paul says.
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