During the presidential debate on September 29, the president called upon his supporters to show up at voting precincts as observers to make sure there is no fraud in the election.
In truth, there has been very little voting fraud in the United States. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative group, documents 1,298 proven cases of voter fraud in the United States over a twenty year period, or roughly 65 per year on average–for the country, or a little over one vote per year per state. The Brennan Center observes that one study showed only 31 cases of impersonation fraud out of one billion votes between 2000 and 2014. One Brennan Center study revealed only 30 instances of non-citizen voting out of 23.5 million votes in precincts with heavy immigrant populations.
One real concern about this call for observers is the intimidation of voters. Already, chanting supporters of the president showed up outside an early facility in Fairfax, Virginia. These people are not poll watchers and most states have regulations about how close to a polling place campaign supporters can demonstrate, and that they cannot impede voters from voting.
Poll watchers are permitted and regulated by law in each state. The National Conference of State Legislatures provides a summary of the laws for each state. The full text of these laws for each state should be referenced because it includes information not in the summary. I also found one inaccuracy for Ohio–poll watchers must be registered to vote but do not need to be from the precinct they are observing. I will use Ohio’s law (Ohio Revised Code 3505.21) as an example. Here are some pertinent facts:
- Poll watchers must be registered voters.
- They must be appointed by their political party or a group of five candidates.
- Only one person is permitted per precinct and may observe the casting and counting of ballots.
- No candidate, no one in uniform (highway patrol, police, fire, military, militia, or any other uniformed person) may serve as a poll watcher.
- No one carrying a firearm or other deadly weapon may be a poll watcher.
- Appointments of observers must be received by local boards of elections at least eleven days before the election.
- For those observing the counting of absentee ballots, observers must be appointed at least eleven days before the ballots are ready for use.
- No one other than poll workers, election officials, representatives of the Secretary of State, police, and officially appointed observers may be present for the counting of votes.
- They receive no compensation from public funds.
- They swear the following oath: “You do solemnly swear that you will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties as an official observer, assigned by law; that you will not cause any delay to persons offering to vote; and that you will not disclose or communicate to any person how any elector has voted at such election.”
Each state’s laws are different. What should be noted at least about Ohio’s:
- No one can just show up as a self-appointed observer. It is against the law! You must be appointed ahead of time meeting your state’s requirements. Voters not officially appointed may vote, but then they MUST leave.
- There are a number of protections against voter intimidation or pressuring: only one per precinct, no uniforms (which can be intimidating), no guns or other weapons, no delaying of voters, and respecting the privacy of the ballot.
It is important that states, county boards of election and poll judges are all prepared to enforce the law for fair and free elections. States have declared that they are prepared for this whether you vote by absentee ballot, early voting, or on November 3 at your precinct.
The Democracy Project provides “how to vote” information for each state in both English and Spanish.
Some important things:
- If you are not registered, register to vote by the registration deadline for your state. You can’t vote if you miss this deadline.
- If you are voting absentee, request your ballot now, read the instructions carefully and follow them scrupulously, including the ID requirements to certify your identity. Mail this well ahead of election day.
- If you vote in person, familiarize yourself with your local ballot. The League of Women Voters provides information for every part of the country of what is on your ballot. Also, make certain to be prepared to meet all the identification requirements for your state, follow all the instructions for properly voting and having your vote recorded. Poll workers are glad to help with questions.
Do not be afraid to vote by whatever means your state provides. Given the possibility of poll watchers, know the laws in your state, and if you see something out of order, or are in any way impeded in voting by someone other than an election official, report this to the precinct judge, and if not satisfied, your county board of elections.
Voting is one of the great rights of democracy, and one of the most solemn responsibilities of citizenship. Women and people of color had to fight for the right to vote. Some blacks died just trying to register. I was one of the first eighteen year-olds to vote. We fought for this right because in my day, we were old enough to die in military service, but not old enough to vote. A right not exercised may be taken away. We should not let poll observers or anyone else deter us from exercising these rights. I’ll be looking for lots of those “I Voted” stickers!