State laws call observers inside polling places different things, and assign them different roles. In some places, poll “watchers” are different from “challengers,” who can point out people they suspect aren’t legal voters. In other states, poll watchers also do the challenging.
Still other rules set boundaries on how close partisan supporters can stand outside polling places, as they try to whip up support for their candidates with signs, leaflets and other advertising.
Regulations on who can “watch” voting, and the powers granted these observers, vary from state to state. In Pennsylvania, for example, poll watchers can observe the election – checking turnout and voting machines — and also challenge voters by taking their concerns to election officials. However, these challengers generally are barred from interacting directly with voters, or from making meritless challenges that slow down voting.
Qualifications for poll workers also vary. They typically are supposed to be registered voters; in some states they must be certified in advance by election officials. North Carolina requires that poll workers be of “good moral character.”
Observers also are permitted by law in states that conduct elections mostly by mail. In Oregon, for example, the law says parties and candidates can sponsor observers to watch election workers open ballots and count them, but these monitors must behave in a way that “will not interfere with an orderly procedure.”
Supporters of parties and candidates may stand outside polling stations with banners and other political advertising, an activity known as “electioneering.” But that also is subject to laws that vary state to state.
Generally, these advocates must keep a certain distance from the entrance, so as not to harass or intimidate voters.
In Ohio the border is 100 feet, and it’s supposed to be marked by two small American flags. In Florida and Georgia, the boundary is 150 feet.
In a year that has seen armed militias confront protestors, some voting rights advocates are nervous about a return of gun-toting groups showing up outside polling places.
Some battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Virginia, are so-called open-carry states where citizens can carry guns openly in public. There are no laws on the books in those states explicitly prohibiting people from carrying firearms into polling places.
Still, state and federal laws make it illegal for anyone to try to intimidate voters.
Voting rights organizations say they will have thousands of lawyers standing by who would intervene with local officials or seek court orders to stop such activity.