Their role gained notoriety this spring, when the Republican National Committee pledged to deploy 50,000 poll observers to presidential battlefield states for the 2020 general election. They were part of what Justin Clark, the committee’s senior adviser called “a much bigger agenda, a much more aggressive agenda, a much better funded agenda” to advance Republican interests there.
Republicans tend to talk more about the need for monitors, but constituencies often have observers from both sides. Many are lawyers, chosen and sometimes paid by state or local party officials or candidates for office. But not always: 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 assessing the fairness of the vote here. In some places civic groups may select monitors. Far from being required to have legal experience, observers in some states can be as young as 14 years old.
The fees also vary. Some states allow observers to challenge the eligibility of voters to vote; others, including Pennsylvania, only grant this right to separate challengers nominated by candidates or parties. A handful of states limit the right to challenge a voter’s credentials to election officials.
Regardless, the rules often give instructors little leeway to assert themselves. For starters, no one can do the job; candidates must be vetted and usually trained by their sponsors before election officials grant them access to polling stations. Self-proclaimed polling quarters cannot simply enter and monitor polling stations.
Many states prevent observers from speaking to voters or interfering in the ballot. North Carolina imposes criminal penalties for making a frivolous charge that a voter is ineligible. In many cases, the first step for an observer after suspecting an irregularity is not to cry foul, but to call party lawyers or local election officials, so they can resolve the issue.
Tina Walls, a Las Vegas lawyer who was the Democratic Party’s poll supervisor in 2012, said she plans to start over on election day. “With all the threats we’ve heard about on social media, I’m afraid people will feel intimidated by voting,” she said. “If there’s anything I can do to help and make sure all the ballots are counted, that’s the most important thing to me.