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In-Depth: What a poll watcher or election observer is actually allowed to do

State law includes explicit rules and penalties
Voters taking to the polls
Posted at 4:21 PM, Oct 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-22 13:21:04-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — President Trump has repeatedly called on his supporters to volunteer as poll watchers for the upcoming election, including during last month’s presidential debate. But what exactly can a poll watcher do?

Rules vary by state but in California, election observers can monitor what goes on at polling places or at the Registrar of Voters Office, where the ballots are processed and counted.

“In California, we have probably the most transparent rules of any state,” said Pam Smith, a special adviser to the Verified Voting Foundation. “It's very clearly spelled out that you can watch any aspect of the election process -- pre-election, during election, post-election processes -- as long as you don't make a nuisance of yourself.”

Election observers have been part of U.S. elections since the 1700s when ballots were counted publicly.

Anyone can be an election observer in California, but they are often partisan volunteers supplied by campaigns or political parties.

“The fact that you have two opposing sides engaging in this poll watching activity keeps each side honest,” said legal analyst Dan Eaton.

Eaton said the basic idea is to promote transparency and public trust. Campaigns and parties also have practical reasons for sending volunteers to the monitor polls: they’re allowed to access the voter roster posted at each polling place, which they use for last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts.

At the Registrar of Voters Office, election observers are allowed to raise challenges to the eligibility of individual mail-in ballots as the counting takes place. Common challenges include questions about the veracity of a voter’s signature or whether an oval is properly filled in, said political analyst John Dadian.

“There’s a dozen different things you look for,” he said.

In tight races, these observers, sometimes called challengers, can have an impact. Dadian cites the San Diego mayor’s race in 2004 as an example.

“One candidate, Donna Frye, got several thousand more votes than her opponent, but several thousand votes were discounted and she did not become mayor. There’s an example of where it absolutely made a difference. It changed the whole direction of the city,” he said.

The Secretary of State’s Office has a 30-page guide for interested observers. San Diego County has an abbreviated guide.

Observers can take notes and record video of election workers, for example, but they cannot touch any voting materials or equipment.

They can ask questions of poll workers but they cannot communicate with voters.

“People can't show up and kind of block the path or taunt or jeer or give voters any hassle when they're trying to engage in their civic duties,” Smith said.

There are also laws governing what election observers can wear: nothing with political messaging, which is considered an illegal form of electioneering. Observers are also prohibited from wearing clothing that resembles a peace officer or security guard, a tactic that was used to suppress Latino voters in Orange County in 1988.

Violators can be charged with a felony.

There will be additional restrictions on observers this election cycle because of the pandemic. The San Diego County Registrar of Voters Office is requiring observers to wear an appropriate face covering, answer a health questionnaire and stay in designated areas.

“I think the operative term here is that they have the right to observe. They don’t have the right to interfere and intimidate voters as the polling location is a sanctuary for voters to cast their respective ballot,” said San Diego County Registrar Michael Vu.

The Republican National Committee's effort to recruit thousands of poll watchers, which they're calling an "Army for Trump," has caught the attention of California election officials. Last week, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla sent a memo to county official administrators, advising them to brace for potential cases of voter intimidation.

“County elections officials should be prepared to handle incidents involving disruption
and/or voter intimidation at the office of the elections official and/or polling locations,” the memo said. “Most incidents can be effectively diffused and deescalated with a calm demeanor and
approach that advises persons that they are engaged in prohibited activity that violates
state law.”

The memo encourages election officials to report troublesome cases to the state. Voters who feel they’ve been intimidated or had their rights violated can file a report to the state’s hotline at 800-345-VOTE.