Poll watching: What does it mean, what do watchers do, what is the law?

The 2020 presidential election could turn out to be the most watched political contest ever as both Democrats and Republicans have unveiled plans to have observers in voting venues across the country.

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Republicans have trained thousands of volunteers to watch not only voting on election day, but to observe early voting polling places and ballot drop box sites in the run-up to the general election.

Republican National Committee leaders had hoped to register some 50,000 poll watchers for the 2020 election, many of whom will be stationed in battleground states. The party is also putting a priority on watching for mail-in ballot irregularities.

The 2020 election will mark the first time in nearly 40 years that the National Republicans Committee will be allowed to engage in organized poll monitoring activities. The party had been under a consent decree that banned coordinated poll-watching activities after Republican operatives were found to have intimidated voters in the early 1980s election. The decree was imposed in 1982, and modified in 1986 and 1990.

As for the Democrats, the party has upped its efforts in poll watching. There are thousands of Democratic poll watchers lined up for Pennsylvania alone. And the party has added another line of defense against any potential problem with the election – hordes of lawyers.

Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias, told NPR that suits over election issues have already been filed by the Democrats.

“We’re litigating 30-plus lawsuits in 17 or 18 states,” said Elias, who is leading the Biden campaign’s state-level fights over election issues.

Republicans, NPR reported, are already involved in more than 40 lawsuits.

Justin Riemer, chief counsel for the Republican National Committee, said Democrats have had an advantage on poll watching for two generations, but Republicans can once again this year document what happens at specific polling places so the GOP can have evidence in any disputed vote.

“The Democrats were able to have poll watchers there to document what happens if a precinct runs out of ballots, for example, or if there is a voting equipment breakdown or if they weren’t using provisional ballots when they were supposed to,” Riemer told NPR. “Documenting that evidence is extremely important if there are questions after the election that lead to litigation or lead to a recount. And I compare it to, you know, a court case where one side is able to have all the evidence and the other side has none. How is that fair?”

So what is poll watching? Who can do it and how does it work?

Here’s what you need to know:

What are poll watchers?

Poll watchers are volunteers who monitor polling places or city or county elections office officials when they count votes. They are looking for irregularities or improper voting practices and often keep track of voter turnout for their party.

In general, a poll watcher’s primary purpose is to ensure that 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 supposed to interfere in the electoral process apart from reporting issues to polling place authorities and party officials.

Poll watchers keep track of any irregularity and try to document it in case the evidence is needed to challenge a vote.

What can poll watchers do?

Rules for poll watchers vary by state. Most watchers are allowed to spend time in polling places as voters come into cast ballots and are generally allowed to observe almost every part of the election process from the installation of voting machines to the counting of ballots.

Other things poll watchers look for are:

  • Campaigning too close to a polling place
  • Bribing voters to vote for a particular candidate
  • Tampering with voting equipment
  • Intimidating voters into not voting
  • Improper actions by voting place workers such as giving voters incorrect instructions
  • The transfer of votes to a central vote tallying site

What happens if they see a problem?

If a problem or potential problem is seen, poll watchers must report the issue to the election supervisor.

What can’t they do?

Again, each state has its own law about poll watchers, but, generally, poll watchers may not interfere with the way the election is being conducted and may not confront a voter over an issue.

According to a story from ABC News, videos produced by the GOP to recruit poll watchers instruct those who will be participating that they are not to directly engage with voters.

In some states, watchers must stand a certain distance away from voting machines or collection boxes.

Who can be poll watchers?

In some states, there is an age limit on who can monitor voting. In most states, you must be a registered voter. Some states prohibit members of a candidate’s family from poll watching.

Rules for who can be a poll watcher are determined by state statute.

Is poll watching new?

No. Poll watching is common in elections and has been going on for hundreds of years.

What requirements do states put on poll workers?

Here are some states' requirement for poll workers:


F.S. §101.131: A “qualified and registered elector” in the county in which he/she will serve; one per party and one per candidate, cannot be candidate or law enforcement officer. Must wear a badge identifying them by name.


Ga. Code Ann. §21-2-408: Prohibits candidates from serving as poll watchers; two per precinct in the general election and one per precinct per candidate in the primary election. Must wear a badge saying “Official Poll Watcher.”

North Carolina

N.C.G.S.A. §163-45: County party chairs can designate two observers per polling place and 10 at-large observers who are residents of the county and can observe at any polling place in the county; county party chairs can also appoint a runner to receive voting lists. Observers must be registered voters of the county in which they are appointed and must have “good moral character.” Prohibits candidates from serving as observers or runners.


R.C. §3505.21: Must be a registered voter in the precinct; can’t be a candidate; can be appointed by a political party or a group of five or more candidates; one person per precinct; can’t be a uniformed peace officer, state patrolman, member of an organized militia or any other person in uniform; can’t be carrying a firearm or deadly weapon.


V.T.C.A., Election Code §33.031: Poll watchers can be acting on behalf of a candidate, political party, or opponent or proponent of a ballot measure; must be a qualified elector from the jurisdiction; can’t be a felon, candidate, public official or related within the second degree of consanguinity to an election judge/clerk at the site; maximum of seven per early voting site and two per Election Day voting site.

Click here to see the statutes that govern what other states require of watchers.