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Elections 101: What to know about poll watchers, and what they can and can’t do in Pennsylvania

by Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA |

The sun sets over Pennsylvania as voters take to the polls in Harrisburg on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022.
Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — As the 2024 election heats up, voters in Pennsylvania may hear candidates talk about poll watchers. Appointed by candidates or political parties, poll watchers are permitted to observe polling place setup, the voting process, and the counting of ballots.

Poll watchers are a longstanding feature of elections in Pennsylvania and around the country, and both major parties use them to guard against malfeasance. But in 2020 they became the subject of mass scrutiny as former President Donald Trump made multiple false or misleading claims about them.

His campaign also brought unsuccessful lawsuits arguing its watchers should be allowed in Philadelphia’s satellite mail ballot offices and allowed to serve in counties other than where they reside.

Trump’s complaints continued during the year’s protracted post-election ballot count, with a state judge at one point ordering Philadelphia to let poll watchers move closer to ballot counting locations.

City officials objected, saying their election workers faced harassment as a result of the scrutiny and widespread confusion about what poll watchers are allowed to do.

Election directors broadly agree that poll watchers are crucial for improving confidence in the election process, but say that understanding the rules is imperative.

“Poll watching has value in ensuring that elections are being run fairly,” said Seth Bluestein, Philadelphia’s Republican city commissioner. “If people are going to be poll watchers, there’s a lot of benefits that can provide. That’s not to say the system can’t be abused.”

Here’s everything you need to know about poll watchers, what they can and can’t do, and how they will be used in the upcoming election.

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What is a poll watcher? What does a poll watcher do?

Poll watchers are selected by candidates and political parties represented on the ballot. They are permitted to observe the key components of the election process: the preparation of voting equipment, polling place proceedings, and election workers counting ballots.

Poll watchers differ from poll workers, who are volunteers chosen by the Pennsylvania Department of State or county election officials rather than candidates or political parties. Poll workers help administer the election through tasks such as checking in voters at polling precincts or setting up voting machinery.

There are stringent guidelines poll watchers must follow. For one, they must be registered to vote in the county where they observe.

Candidates and parties are allowed up to two and three watchers per polling precinct, respectively, though only one watcher per candidate or party is allowed at a precinct at a time.

The candidates and parties don’t always deploy the full number of watchers that they are entitled to, so the number who turn up on Election Day can vary widely, election directors say: from zero to dozens.

“In [my county], it tends to be a little feast or famine. In a presidential year, you know you’re going to have some,” said Forrest Lehman, Lycoming County election director. “It just takes one motivated candidate.”

Election directors say that in the past, candidates and parties primarily assigned poll watchers to keep running lists of which registered voters turned out during Election Day.

Bluestein called the process “knock and drag,” wherein candidates or parties would collect these lists throughout Election Day and reach out to “potentially favorable voters” who had yet to cast their ballots.

Individual candidates and parties are also allowed to have up to three poll watchers observe the ballot-counting process, also known as canvassing.

Watchers are not permitted to talk with voters or roam the polling place; they are restricted to a designated area.

They are also prohibited from engaging in any form of electioneering or voter intimidation: This includes talking to or questioning voters, taking photographs or videos of voters or the polling place, asking for voters’ documentation, blocking the entrance to the precinct, or otherwise behaving in a threatening way.

Any claims of malfeasance, such as alleging that a voter does not reside in the election district they voted in, must be addressed to the precinct’s judge of elections, the worker that runs the polling place.

How to become a poll watcher

Poll watchers are appointed by a candidate or a political party represented on the ballot, and assigned to specific precincts.

Watchers must be certified by their county’s board of elections before Election Day and must keep that certification on hand during voting. To obtain certification, county election directors must verify that the volunteer is registered to vote in the county that they wish to observe.

Why were poll watchers scrutinized in 2020?

Before, during, and after the 2020 election, Trump alleged that poll watchers who worked on behalf of his campaign and the GOP in Philadelphia were not given proper access to election proceedings, and alleged that they had been persecuted by election officials.

He claimed this lack of access indicated corruption in the state’s election process. These claims were uniformly misleading.

Trump said during a presidential debate in September 2020 that poll watchers who supported him were not permitted to observe polling places on the first day of early in-person voting in Philadelphia.

At the time, Trump’s campaign didn’t have credentialed poll watchers in Philadelphia, and there were no traditional polling places open.

Philly’s version of early voting was a variation on the practice, in which the city opened over a dozen different satellite offices the month before Election Day; there, voters could request and fill out mail ballots and submit them in person.

Importantly, the satellite offices weren’t legally polling places — they had the same purpose as any other city facility where people could drop off mail ballots. This was key because state law dictates that poll watchers are allowed in “polling places.” It does not explicitly mention satellite offices, nor does it allow poll watchers to observe voters outside of Election Day.

This law remains the same in 2024.

As a part of this effort, the Trump campaign filed multiple suits in state and federal courts that sought to allow its poll watchers closer access to vote-counting centers in Philadelphia and to expand who could serve as a poll watcher. However, all of the cases were dismissed.

Former President Donald Trump in Argentina, November 2018.
U.S. Department of State photo
Former President Donald Trump in Argentina, November 2018.

What was the impact?

While Trump’s claims about his poll watchers being denied access in Pennsylvania were uniformly disproven or dismissed by judges by early 2021, the impacts on the state’s election process lasted longer.

Republican lawmakers in the state legislature took up some of Trump’s efforts to change the way elections worked.

After thousands of Trump supporters volunteered to serve as poll watchers and the campaign sued unsuccessfully to have them be allowed to serve in counties where they did not reside, lawmakers tried to change the law to permit the practice in the future.

In 2021, state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) introduced a bill that would have allowed any registered voter in the state to watch polls in any county. The bill also proposed that poll watchers be allowed within six feet of ballot-counting operations — another one of Trump’s goals — and went further. Mastriano proposed increased penalties for officials who were convicted of refusing to admit poll watchers; his bill would have allowed them to be sentenced to up to two years in prison, plus a $5,000 penalty.

The bill passed the state legislature, both chambers of which were led by Republican majorities at the time, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.

Currently, there are no bills in the Pennsylvania legislature that would allow registered voters to serve as poll watchers for any county. There are, however, GOP-sponsored bills in both chambers that propose increasing penalties for impeding poll watchers. Neither has passed out of committee.

The misinformation about poll watching since 2020 has affected election directors’ jobs in various ways. While some say they haven’t had many issues with poll watchers, others say they noticed a major spike in watchers who are hostile or are attempting to monitor polls without county approval.

Lehman says that the impacts of the misinformation and confusion surrounding 2020 were most obvious during the 2022 statewide election.

“Before 2022, I only had to go out once or twice to a precinct ever to negotiate a difference of opinion between a poll watcher and a poll worker,” said Lehman. “Suddenly, I had to go to 10 to 12.”

Lehman thinks the crux of the issue was misinformation — poll watchers didn’t always know what they were and weren’t able to do, which resulted in conflicts between watchers and the poll workers running the precincts.

Jeff Greenburg, an election administration advisor at the good-government group Committee of Seventy and former election director, hopes to help solve that issue. He runs information sessions for the organization that educate potential poll watchers about their role.

“I know that the landscape has changed significantly since 2020. But nothing has changed as when it comes to the laws and rules surrounding poll watchers in Pennsylvania,” Greenburg said. “That was something I never worried about as a director, but something I would strongly consider now.”

Some election directors go beyond education to make poll watchers trust the voting process. Mercer County election director Thad Hall assigns bipartisan teams of poll watchers in precincts, working with state parties and candidates to organize them. Hall says that while that practice is not required, he believes it increases confidence in the results.

The current and former election directors who spoke with Spotlight PA all say that they are hopeful about the upcoming election. They emphasize that poll watchers are an important part of the election process, and that their presence increases trust in election results.

“In 2022, we were really caught off guard by the adversarial stance. Since then we’ve clarified the rules and the policies substantially,” said Lehman, noting that his county now provides poll watcher training materials.

“They’re a legitimate part of the process, they have an important role to play in making sure the process is transparent,” he added. “But there are limitations on watchers’ conduct that they need to be aware of and respect.”

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