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The History and Role of Poll Watchers in US Elections

FILE - Poll workers prepare absentee ballots for shipment at the Wake County Board of Elections on the first day that the state started mailing them out, in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S. September 4, 2020. (REUTERS/Jonathan Drake/File Photo)
The History and Role of Poll Watchers in US Elections
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Republican Party activists are urging supporters across the United States to closely watch early voting sites and ballot drop boxes in the weeks before elections next month.

The party’s effort expands on the traditional duties of election observers.

The custom of “poll watching” may take on new meaning this year with an increase in mail-in voting because of the COVID-19 health crisis. At the same time, President Donald Trump claims that mail voting can lead to cheating. Trump is seeking re-election as the Republican candidate.

What is poll watching?

Poll watchers have been part of U.S. elections dating back to the 18th century. Their activities are controlled by state laws and local rules. Members of both major political parties keep an eye on the voting - and each other - to make sure things go smoothly.

State laws call observers inside polling stations different things. States also may ask them to do different things. In some areas, poll “watchers” are different from “challengers,” who can point out people they suspect are not legal voters. In other states, poll watchers also do the challenging.

Other rules set limits on how close party supporters can stand outside polling stations.

What are the rules?

Rules on who can “watch” voting, and the powers given to these observers, differ from state to state. In Pennsylvania, for example, poll watchers can observe the election - checking turnout and voting machines -- and also challenge voters by taking their concerns to election officials. However, the challengers generally are barred from talking directly with voters, or from making baseless claims that slow down voting.

Requirements for poll watchers also differ. They usually are supposed to be registered voters. In some states, they must be approved before the vote by election officials. The state of North Carolina requires that poll workers be of “good moral character.”

Observers also are permitted by law in states that hold elections mostly by mail. In Oregon, for example, the law says parties and candidates can sponsor observers to watch election workers open ballots and count them. But these observers must behave in a way that “will not interfere with an orderly procedure.”

Supporters of parties and candidates may stand outside polling stations with signs and other political advertising, an activity known as “electioneering.” But laws governing these activities also differ from one state to the next. Generally, these supporters must keep a distance from the entrance.

Are guns permitted?

In a year in which protesters and armed militias clashed, some voting rights activists fear a return of armed groups showing up outside polling stations.

In some states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Virginia, people can carry guns openly in public. There are no laws in those states directly barring people from carrying weapons into polling stations.

Yet state and federal laws make it illegal for anyone to try to intimidate voters.

Voting rights organizations say they will have thousands of lawyers ready to intervene with local officials or seek court orders to stop such activity.

I’m Ashley Thompson.

The Reuters news agency reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

site - n . the place where something (such as a building) is, was, or will be located

poll - n. the record of votes that were made by people in an election

challenger - n. someone who says or shows that (something) may not be true, correct, or legal

character - n. the way someone thinks, feels, and behaves : someone's personality

sponsor - v. to support or pay for the cost of an activity or event

procedure - n. a series of actions that are done in a certain way or order : an established or accepted way of doing something

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