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The real rules behind poll-watching

Poll watcher Jane Grimes Meneely monitored voters signing in at the Martha O'Bryan Center community building in Nashville in 2016.Mark Humphrey/AP/file

In last month’s debate, President Trump urged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” issuing a clarion call that some fear could lead to voter intimidation.

Trump has frequently made baseless claims that the elections are riddled with fraud and urged his fans to help protect the integrity of the vote. At a North Carolina rally last month, for example, he prodded the crowd to monitor their local polls on Election Day and “watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing” there. His son, Donald Trump Jr., posted a widely circulated video last month appealing to supporters "to join the army for Trump’s election security operations.”


Poll-watching is a staple of American politics. But experts and state elections officials warn that Trump’s rhetoric may lead to Election Day confusion and consternation: There are strict, state-specific rules governing election observers. And, they emphasize, it is illegal to harass and intimidate people casting their ballots.

"What the president has done is potentially dangerous because [Trump] has not explained . . . what the process is,'' said Todd Belt, a politics professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “He just said, ‘Be a poll watcher,’ and people don’t know what that means.”

So what does it mean? Traditionally, poll watchers are people — a mix of partisans and nonpartisans — stationed at polling sites, helping to monitor the voting process and ensure its integrity. The rules for participating vary by state.

The most common type of poll watcher is a partisan observer, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization that provides support and ideas to the states. These observers represent political parties, candidates, or groups supporting or opposing a ballot proposition, according to the organization, which has compiled an extensive list of each state’s rules on poll watchers and challengers.


Poll watchers are usually given a designated position inside voting places, from which they can gauge turnout; watch for irregularities, such as long lines or broken machines; and challenge ballots from voters whose names don’t match the rolls. They report problems they see to election authorities at the polling places, or to their political parties, who can then raise complaints or challenges.

They are not allowed to talk to voters, ask them questions, or otherwise interfere with the voting process.

They also are typically forbidden from wearing political party attire. In Massachusetts, they’re not allowed to sit at either the check-in or check-out table or in a location where they may be confused for poll workers, who are municipal employees or volunteers.

In addition to representing political parties, campaigns, and ballot issue committees, poll observers in some states can be appointed by organizations and civic groups. And some states require that poll watchers be registered voters.

The rules vary on how many watchers are allowed at one polling place at any given time, but most states limit the number. Some, like Alabama, allow only one observer per candidate. But others, such as Kentucky and Michigan, allow two. In Iowa, each political party gets three, the state legislatures' group website said.

Anyone can be an observer in Massachusetts, but people representing campaigns are given priority when space is limited in a polling place, according to guidance released from Secretary of State William Galvin’s office last week. (Space is especially tight this year, due to the pandemic and rules on social distancing.)


In some states, the poll watchers have to be certified in writing to the managers of a polling precinct. Massachusetts does not require certification, but Galvin said political campaigns have been asked to contact the clerk in their local municipalities and provide a list of their poll observers and the precincts where they will be.

Galvin said that while there is no specific limit on poll observers in the state, his office is urging one observer per candidate.

"We’re not going to have a troop there,'' he said in an interview.

These observers must be allowed into polling places during early voting and Election Day hours, so that they can observe the public inspection of the voting equipment or test results where scanning equipment is used, according to the guidance. They must be permitted to stay after the polls close to watch the voting lists and all ballots being removed from the ballot box.

Although they are allowed to use electronic devices, the guidance said, they are not permitted to take pictures of individual voters checking in, marking their ballots, or depositing their marked ballots into the ballot box “in a manner in which the secrecy of the ballot may be compromised.”

While inside a polling site, they are not allowed to roam.

"We’re not trying to impede them, but obviously when you’re talking about literally hundreds, if not thousands of people, going into a polling place on a given day, we have to maintain order in the precinct,'' Galvin said. “We are not going to let anything interfere with the voter, at all. Period.”


Trump’s rhetoric on poll-watching is triggering a surge in efforts to ensure voting continues without a hitch.

This year, because of concerns about voter intimidation and ballot access, a significant number of nonpartisan observers, operating independently of the parties and the candidates, are making plans to monitor the polls. They include civil rights lawyers, advocates, and other volunteers, whose aim is to protect the integrity of the electoral process and to check for irregularities, according to the state legislatures' group website.

"Our volunteers will make themselves available to people who may have had problems inside the polling locations and . . . want assistance,'' said Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program at ACLU of Massachusetts, a member of the Election Protection Coalition.

The coalition, a nonpartisan group, has mobilized roughly 2,000 volunteers to watch polling places in Massachusetts — four times more than those who volunteered in 2016, said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, which is leading the effort.

The volunteers will be stationed outside a polling place, and some will either drive or bike by a polling site to look for anything amiss. The group also has a hotline for reporting election irregularities.

Because of the pandemic and the need for social distancing, Hall said, volunteers mostly will be outside polling places making sure there are no acts of intimidation.


"The first line of defense is providing information” to people who need it, he said. But if an issue arises, Hall said, the coalition will try to get it resolved with the wardens at the polling sites, or, if necessary, the town clerk and the secretary of state.

"The coalition has lawyers on the ready [if] there is a need to go to court to address an issue,'' Hall said, “but we have not had that problem in the past, and we don’t anticipate [one now.]”

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.