Midterms 2022: The Poll Observer Landscape

Poll observers — members of the public permitted to monitor conduct at polling places — are a feature of elections in nearly every state. They add a degree of transparency in the electoral process that promotes the public confidence in elections that is the lifeblood of democracy. However, in some cases, poll observers have also caused major disruption at the polls. For example, during the 2020 election in Michigan, large groups including partisan poll observers crowded polling sites and attempted to enter vote counting rooms.  

Later this month, the States United Democracy Center will release a report examining the relevant laws governing poll observers. We use this term to describe both poll watchers, private individuals who observe the election process, and election challengers, who have many of the same privileges and can also dispute whether a prospective voter is eligible to cast a ballot. (Our definition of “poll observers” for the purposes of this report does not include poll workers or other categories of officials permitted to be present at polling places.) This report will include detailed summaries of 12 key states that saw record voter participation, many of which were also subject to significant attempts to undermine the electoral process by a variety of partisan actors in 2020. We intend for this report to provide guidance regarding the power, privileges, and limitations of poll observers to statewide elected officials, law enforcement professionals, elections administrators, election protection groups, and others—regardless of partisan affiliation. 

Today, in advance of upcoming primary elections, we are releasing a preview of our summaries of poll observer rights and responsibilities in four states: Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. These summaries provide a review of state regulatory schemes concerning poll observers, detailing credentialing and training requirements as well as rights and responsibilities afforded to both poll watchers and election challengers in each state. We hope that these summaries will support the administration of free, fair, and secure elections. 

Please note: this report does not purport to catalog all state statutes or rules that may regulate the behavior of individuals who serve as poll observers and should not be relied upon as legal advice. To ensure accuracy, completeness, and the most up-to-date language, please consult official sources before relying on the authorities described in this report.