The first rule of being an election observer is you do not interfere with the conduct of the election.
Also no bothering poll workers, no taking pictures or looking at confidential voter information, no wearing campaign clothes or buttons, and no challenging someone’s right to cast a ballot.
Plus there are a handful of other rules, as California Secretary of State Alex Padilla explained in a memo to county elections officials last month – but most registrars and groups that recruit and train volunteer poll watchers agree the first rule is key.
The rules for observers are being reviewed and re-emphasized as Southern California officials prepare for the widespread opening of polling places and vote centers ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Los Angeles County will open about 15% of its roughly 770 vote centers starting Saturday, Oct. 24; the rest will follow Oct. 30, the same day Orange County’s nearly 200 vote centers open. Riverside and San Bernardino counties will open polls for in-person voting Oct. 31.
While President Donald Trump has repeatedly predicted massive fraud in the Nov. 3 election and publicly called on his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” for potential attempts to cheat, in Southern California opinions are mixed as to whether to expect a groundswell of volunteer observers flooding polling places and ballot tallying operations.
Who’s allowed to watch?
The vast majority of states allow people (they’re often required to be registered voters) to observe voting at polling places, and some let them watch ballot sorting and counting operations too, with restrictions such as not interfering with the process and not touching election materials.
In Riverside County, “all the activities in the Registrar of Voters Office or at one of the county’s 130 voter assistance centers are open for observation,” county spokeswoman Brooke Federico said in an email, adding that observers need to check in on arrival, wear a mask and stay socially distant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Same goes in San Bernardino County, Registrar of Voters Bob Page said. He noted that if a polling station gets crowded, staff will have discretion to limit attendance of people who aren’t there to cast a ballot.
In Los Angeles and Orange counties, cameras are live streaming the processing that’s already underway for mail ballots.
“If people just want to stay home and watch the entire thing, they have that ability,” L.A. County Registrar of Voters spokesman Mike Sanchez said – and they can still watch in person too, though there might be a time limit on how long they can observe so everyone who shows up gets a turn.
Poll watchers are usually from campaigns and political parties that want to make sure their candidates and voters are treated fairly, and from nonpartisan advocacy groups hoping to ensure election laws are followed.
“At its best, poll watching is a good thing because we want to make sure that election officials run fair, transparent elections – and the best way to do that is to give all the parties as well as nonpartisan actors the opportunity to see the process,” said UC Irvine professor Rick Hasen, an expert in election law.
“The problem is when it might cross the line into intimidation or harassment.”
Why they do it
Do observers ever find any issues? Actually, they have – though there’s been no evidence of widespread poll worker errors or voting fraud.
In the 2018 general election, researchers with the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project observed nearly three dozen Orange County polls and noted issues such as a ballot collection box that wasn’t sealed, lack of staff or parking at some sites, and poll workers occasionally failing to check dropped-off mail ballots for a voter’s signature – but their report found no significant issues.
The rapid expansion of voting by mail is a big concern to the Election Integrity Project California, which describes itself as a nonpartisan watchdog. Project President Linda Paine said a review of statewide voting records from the March primary found 16 instances of people who voted twice, and the group has been hearing recently from voters around California who received mail ballots for deceased relatives, former residents at their address or more than one ballot for the same voter.
Paine said her group is holding online training for volunteers to observe at voting and ballot tallying sites statewide, and they’re on track to train a record 3,000 people.
Others plan to watch polling places to ensure no one is scared away from voting.
Some Orange County voters still remember a 1988 incident when uniformed guards were hired to stand outside several polling places, some with signs warning non-citizens can’t vote.
OC Democratic Party Chairwoman Ada Briceño said she saw that as an attempt to suppress the Latino vote – and the party is hoping to get an observer to every vote center in the county to ensure nothing like that happens in the upcoming election.
“Absolutely we’re concerned, because of the history that we’ve had,” she said.
How to respond
Elections officials and advocacy groups offer various ways voters can report problems and concerns they may see or experience. The California Secretary of State and Los Angeles and Orange counties have hotlines, the Election Integrity Project California has an online form to fill out, and registrars said they’re in close contact with local law enforcement in case they need assistance.
Both Paine and Louise Adler, a Lake Forest resident who’s training OC Democrats and has been a poll observer herself, said they instruct volunteers not to step in if they see an issue and only to talk to the person in charge of the voting site.
“If they really feel threatened or unsafe they can call 911,” Adler said. “We also tell them never to confront a voter or a member of the public with your concerns – it is not your job to fix the problem, it is only to observe and report.”
While most poll watchers likely have good intentions, Hasen said he worried about “rogue actors.”
“I think a big part of this,” he said, “is kind of to send the message out that polling places are going to be places of confrontation and dispute to discourage people from going.”
Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said people won’t be frightened away from voting if he can help it.
He’s not hearing anything to indicate OC vote centers will be mobbed by poll watchers, he said, and anyone who does turn out is expected to follow the rules. He said a few years ago his office responded within minutes to reports of a half dozen people loitering in front of a polling place.
“I’ve got radio-dispatched teams out there, we’re ready to respond,” he said, “and I want to make sure it’s a peaceful, smooth election.”
Report problems with voting by calling the Secretary of State’s hotline, 800-345-VOTE (8683); for hotlines in languages other than English visit www.sos.ca.gov and click on “voting resources.”
Source: Orange County Register