What is poll watching and why did it become an issue during the debate?

What is poll watching and why did it become an issue during the debate?
Posted at 3:30 PM, Sep 30, 2020

At Tuesday’s presidential debate, President Donald Trump complained that poll watchers in Philadelphia were denied access to early voting in the critical battleground state.

“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen,” Trump said. “I am urging them to do it. As you know, today there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things.”

Poll watching is generally a commonly-accepted democratic practice employed throughout the US. But there are questions on what constitutes a polling site.

In Pennsylvania, voting centers are not considered polling locations. Early voting centers are locations where voters can pick up a mail-in ballot and can complete and return the ballot on-site. Voters have the option of taking the ballot home and returning it before the election.

“We don’t give someone a poll watcher certificate to … watch somebody fill out their ballot at their kitchen table,” Republican Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

While poll-watching laws vary by state, the practice is generally accepted, but it has limits. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, poll watchers are to take a hands-off approach.

For instance, poll watchers should not talk to voters, interfere with the voting process or campaign while on-site. Poll watchers, however, can watch for irregularities and report them to elections officials and political campaigns.

There are generally limits on the number of poll watchers a campaign or party can designate. An accreditation process in 40 states means an ordinary citizen cannot walk into a polling site without some level of training, according to the Carter Center.

"This process is led by local party chairs, candidates, or ballot issue groups and can require approval by election officials or the secretary of state’s office," the Carter Center said.

Some interpreted Trump’s call for poll watchers as a voter intimidation tactic.

"Trump also told 'his supporters' to 'go into the polls and watch very carefully,'" said Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford on Twitter. "But he wasn't talking about poll watching. He was talking about voter intimidation. FYI, voter intimidation is illegal in Nevada. Believe me when I say it: You do it, and you will be prosecuted."

A hands-off approach is what differentiates someone engaging in legal poll watching and illegal voter intimidation. While poll watching laws are regulated at the state level, there is a federal law against voter intimidation.

“Whoever intimidates, threatens, coerces, or attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce, any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote or to vote as he may choose, or of causing such other person to vote for, or not to vote for, any candidate for the office of President, Vice President, Presidential elector, Member of the Senate, Member of the House of Representatives, Delegate from the District of Columbia, or Resident Commissioner, at any election held solely or in part for the purpose of electing such candidate, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both,” the law reads.

To learn more about each state’s laws on poll watching, click here.

Justin Boggs is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @jjboggs or on Facebook.