Their role got a moment of notoriety this spring, when the Republican National Committee pledged to deploy 50,000 poll watchers in presidential battleground states for the 2020 general election. They were part of what Justin Clark, the senior counsel to the committee, called “a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better funded program” to advance Republican interests there.
Republicans tend to talk more about the need for monitors, but precincts often are staffed with watchers from both parties. Many are lawyers, chosen and sometimes paid by state or local party officials or candidates for office. But not always: The requirements vary widely from state to state, and are not limited to party officials or party representatives.
There are academic observers — researchers gathering information for studies — and even foreign observers gauging the fairness of voting here. In some places, civic groups can select monitors. Far from being required to have legal experience, watchers in some states can be as young at 14.
The duties vary as well. Some states allow watchers to challenge the eligibility of voters to cast ballots; others, including Pennsylvania, give that right only to separate challengers named by candidates or parties. A handful of states limit the right to challenge a voter’s credentials to election officials.
Regardless, the rules frequently give monitors scant leeway to assert themselves. For starters, not anyone can do the job; applicants must be vetted and usually trained by their sponsors before election officials grant them access to polling places. Self-appointed poll watches cannot just walk in and surveil polling places.
Many states prevent monitors from talking to voters or otherwise interfering in balloting. North Carolina imposes criminal penalties for making a frivolous charge that a voter is ineligible. In many cases, a monitor’s first step after suspecting an irregularity is not to cry foul, but to call party lawyers or local election officials, so they can address the problem.
Tina Walls, a Las Vegas lawyer who was a Democratic Party poll monitor in 2012, said she planned to do it again on Election Day. “With all the threats we’ve heard about on social media, I’m concerned that people will feel intimidated about voting,” she said. “If there’s anything I can do to help that and make sure that all ballots are counted, that’s the most important thing to me.”