President Donald Trump has recently urged his supporters to go to the polls and “watch very carefully.” With less than three weeks until Election Day, many are learning about poll watchers for the first time. Yahoo News spoke to a voting rights and elections expert, who explains who can serve as a poll watcher, what their role is and what they can and can't do at the polls.
ELIZA SWEREN-BECKER: A poll watcher is someone who is typically designated to serve as an observer at a polling place and the canvas or the counting of ballots. And their presence generally increases transparency in the election process. And they are an extra set of eyes for elections administrators to notice and bring any irregularities to the attention of officials.
DONALD TRUMP: I'm urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully. They're called poll watchers. A very safe, very nice thing.
MICHAEL STEELE: When you have someone of the president's authority saying something like that, rank and file Americans who support the president and want to be helpful just, you know, will show up on election day and go, well, I'm here to watch the polls. And you just can't show up and start watching the polls.
ELIZA SWEREN-BECKER: In almost every state, they have to be designated or appointed in advance by a particular party or a candidate. They're often limited in the number of [INAUDIBLE] that can be appointed to serve as poll watchers. Usually, there has to be a confirmation in writing delivered to the election administrators confirming that appointment. And then the poll watchers have to have specific badges identifying them at the polling place so that voters know who they are.
But there are also limits on what they can do. Typically, poll watchers can't talk to or interact with voters. The poll watchers are not get out the vote volunteers. They are specifically designated to observe in polling places and at the canvas and are not supposed to be interacting with voters at all. You're not permitted to be doing electioneering activities in the polling place or within the electioneering boundary.
And the intimidation laws that prohibit intimidation of voters apply also to poll watchers. So anything that would interfere with intimidate or scare a voter from casting their ballot, poll watchers are subject to those laws as well. Any kind of voter intimidation is a federal crime. And in most states, it's a state crime as well.
The president's rhetoric in trying to recruit poll watchers is concerning, particularly because of the militant nature of the rhetoric and his continuing refusal to disavow violent white nationalists. But the president, like any candidate, also has the prerogative to recruit observers. The rhetoric around poll watchers and challengers is itself designed to scare voters away from the polls. And no voter should be deterred by anybody using fear mongering to prevent them from casting a ballot.