Poll Watchers Are Allowed In California. Here Are The Do's And Don'ts

Staff at a mobile voting center check voters in and print out their ballots at LAC+USC Medical Center, March 3 2020. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)

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Voting is underway in California. Most registered voters have already received their mail-in ballots or will get them in the coming days. The first in-person vote centers will open Oct. 24 in L.A. and Orange Counties.

Meanwhile, nationwide, the Trump campaign says it is recruiting and training tens of thousands of "poll watchers," a practice many legal experts worry could veer into illegal voter intimidation.

Our Voter Game Plan team received several questions about poll watchers — so let's break down what they are and the rules governing them in California.

WHAT ARE POLL WATCHERS, AND WHAT IS THEIR PURPOSE?

Sometimes called "election observers," poll watchers are just what they sound like — volunteers who watch the election process and make sure things are going smoothly. Democrats, Republicans and non-partisan groups send people to voting sites during every election to ensure nothing irregular is happening.

(Political parties and watchdog groups also send observers to monitor the processing and counting of ballots at county election headquarters. You can learn more about that in this Orange County election observer handbook.)

The practice may take on a larger scale and impact this year, because President Trump called for his supporters to become poll watchers during his first debate with Joe Biden.

"I'm urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully," he said. "They're called 'poll watchers.' It's a very safe, very nice thing." In August, the President promised to send law enforcement to watch polling places.

The President's son, Donald Trump Jr., has also been promoting an online ad encouraging people to join "An Army For Trump's Election Security Operation" that already has millions of views. (Facebook has since changed its ad policy to remove that kind of militarized language.)

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LEGAL POLL WATCHERS AND ILLEGAL VOTER INTIMIDATION?

In many states, the laws governing poll watching are more specific. Some places require election observers to be certified ahead of time, for example.

But that's not the case in California. Here, anyone is allowed to observe the voting process. In some counties, poll watchers don't have to announce or identify themselves.

If a poll watcher sees anything troubling at a vote center or polling place, they should call the Secretary of State's voter hotline (1-800-345-VOTE) or their local county registrar.

Poll watchers cannot approach a voter personally at a vote center or harass elections staff. In fact, it's illegal to get in the way of the voting process. State law says anyone who interferes with an election or attempts to prevent voters from casting ballots could be punished with up to three years in prison.

"Polling place observers are there to observe only," said Sam Mahood, spokesperson for the California Secretary of State. "They cannot challenge anything at a voting location."

(Chava Sanchez/LAist )

Electioneering is also illegal in California. That's defined in the state's election code as "the visible display or audible dissemination of information that advocates for or against any candidate or measure on the ballot within 100 feet of a polling place."

In other words, if you arrive at a polling place with a t-shirt advocating for a particular candidate or measure, poll workers should ask you to cover up. (The law doesn't apply to slogans, such as "Make America Great Again.")

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?

The big-picture worry here is that President Trump makes baseless, flat-out-wrong claims about voter fraud nearly every day. One need look no further than right after his Electoral College victory in 2016, when he began saying he would have won the popular vote if "millions" of illegal votes had not been counted. That's just not true.

You may also remember that the President's commission on voting integrity was disbanded after it found zero evidence of widespread voter fraud.

These days, Trump regularly claims, incorrectly, that mail-in voting is rife with problems, or that there will be fake ballots counted — and all kinds of other falsehoods about the electoral process.

If the President is spreading this disinformation, and his supporters are signing up in large numbers to find imaginary fraud, that's a recipe for trouble.

The fear is that the Trump campaign's poll watcher program will stretch the law and distort the purpose of traditional poll watching to something that amounts to electioneering or voter intimidation.

The President's campaign is focusing the bulk of its efforts on swing states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, and Arizona — a state with voter I.D. requirements. But they have said the goal is to have people at every polling place around the country.

For the record, a Trump campaign training video viewed by CNN instructed poll watching volunteers "to behave yourself and not act like a fool."

An L.A. County official ballot drop box sits outside the Eagle Rock Library, ready for the Nov. 3, 2020 General Election. (Libby Denkmann / LAist)

THAT TIME AN O.C. POLITICIAN SENT 'GOONS' TO POLLING PLACES

Does election interference seem far-fetched? It's happened here before.

As Ben Christopher reported for CalMatters, the President's rallying cry evoked an episode of voter intimidation 32 years ago in Southern California, when a Republican candidate for State Assembly and the local party deployed "voter security" on Election Day.

In the 1988 general election, Orange County Republican Assemblyman Curt Pringle and the county GOP hired uniformed guards to canvas polling places in heavily Latino neighborhoods of Santa Ana in search of signs of illegal voting. They also carried signs, written in both Spanish and English, reminding anyone entering the precinct that only citizens were allowed to vote.

Pringle won the election by 867 votes. His campaign's chief political consultant said at the time, "I'm not at all sure we would have won" without the guards.

The FBI opened an investigation, and Pringle and the Orange County Republican Party later paid a $400,000 settlement to five Latino voters who sued for civil rights violations. An attorney representing the plaintiffs told the L.A. Times, "This clearly will send a message nationally that you just can't do this. Goons in polling places will not be tolerated."

Shortly after the Orange County incident, the California Legislature passed a law banning armed guards at polling places.

The O.C. "voter security" enterprise was similar to another incident in New Jersey in 1981, when the Republican National Committee sent off-duty police officers to watch the polls in Black and Latino neighborhoods. That operation likely swung a very tight New Jersey Governor's race. Afterwards, Democrats sued, and a judge issued a consent decree curbing the national GOP's poll watching activities. But a federal court allowed that order to expire in 2018 — fueling anxiety over the implications of a stepped-up poll watching program aimed at suppressing the vote in minority communities during the first presidential election since the restrictions were lifted.

WHAT ARE THE DO'S AND DON'TS IN CALIFORNIA?

This information combines general recommendations gathered from Los Angeles County and other Southern California jurisdictions, along with state laws and guidance from the Secretary of State's office. Specific poll watcher/election observer guidelines vary by county, so check with your registrar of voters to be sure you are observing all the local rules.

  • Most registrars ask that you identify yourself to election workers when you enter a polling place — but don't bother election staff when they are helping voters.
  • Do not interact with voters inside vote centers or polling places. Do not challenge a voter's right to vote.
  • It's illegal to present false information about voter ID checks or other eligibility requirements.
  • Don't wear campaign gear, "security" garb, or a law enforcement-like uniform to observe voting.
  • Do not advocate for a candidate or measure within 100 feet of the polling place.
  • Cell phones are generally permitted, but you may not record or transmit any voter data or ballot information.
  • You can look, but don't touch equipment or ballots.

In a memo to all California registrars, Secretary of State Alex Padilla pointed out Section 14240(b) of the state's elections code: "A person, other than a member of a precinct board or other official responsible for the conduct of the election, shall not challenge or question any voter concerning the voter's qualifications to vote."

An election worker hands out "I Voted" stickers at the L.A. County mock election at Salazar Park in East L.A. on September 28, 2019. (Al Kamalizad for LAist)

Riverside County's Registrar, Rebecca Spencer, said the county asks "that observers introduce themselves to the poll workers, and the poll workers will let them know what area of the room can be used for observation." She added that depending on public health guidelines for social distancing, observers may not be allowed to remain indefinitely inside polling places.

WHAT SHOULD VOTERS DO IF THEY ARE UNCOMFORTABLE?

If anything occurs that gets in the way of your vote, the Secretary of State encourages you to call their hotline, which is also available in several languages. Disability Rights California also takes calls on Election Day to ensure disabled voters have a good voting experience.

For immediate help, you should call your county's registrar, since they administer local elections and can send teams directly to polling places when there are problems.

Remember you are allowed to bring a friend or family member to assist you while voting.

And if your name is not on the rolls, don't leave your polling place without asking to vote provisionally. With a provisional ballot, you cast a ballot. It goes into a special pink envelope, and your county election officials check your eligibility to vote. Once you are verified, your ballot will be counted. The vast majority of provisional ballots are counted in California.

More Local Election Coverage

At KPCC/LAist's Voter Game Plan you can find: