Poll Watching vs. Poll Challenging

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Poll Worker. Poll Watcher. Poll Challenger. Like characters in a Tolstoy novel, it’s easy to confuse one with the other. And, between the calls for poll workers, the lawsuit against the Secretary of State and Bureau of Elections regarding poll challengers, President Trump’s “urges” for poll watchers, and an escalating concern about voter intimidation since the alleged kidnapping plots against Governors Whitmer (MI), Northam (VA), and DeWine (OH), maybe it would be helpful to unpack some of this.

Poll Worker

In the state of Michigan, the people who volunteer at the polls to help you with every step from making certain you are at the correct precinct, through making certain there are enough “I Voted” stickers at the end of the process are actually called Election Inspectors. In Saline they fill out an application with the city (you can find it here in the related downloads section), get trained by the county, and are then assigned a precinct during election day. It is possible for people to work as election inspectors in other areas as well. (Go here to start that process, if interested.)

Poll Watchers 

When the President "urged [his] supporters to go to the polls and watch very carefully” during the first presidential debate, it rankled the feathers of many with concerns of voter intimidation. The week prior, a crowd of vociferous Trump supporters were accused of  intimidating voters outside of a polling place in Fairfax, VA.  By contrast, poll watching happens inside the quieter spaces of the voting precinct. It's a thing. Even non-citizens can do it. But there are limitations.

“There are designated areas [in the precincts] for people to be poll watchers,” stated Katrina Ritchey Deputy Clerk for the City of Saline. “But all they can do is watch. They cannot talk to the voters. They cannot do anything that may impress an opinion on them.” 

Essentially anyone can enter the poll, tell an election inspector they’d like to be a poll watcher, and one of the precinct co-chairs will show that person where to stand. It's a perfect opportunity for a high school civics student. “Poll watchers can go there and watch the process, but that’s it. They are not challengers. They cannot challenge the voter,” Ritchey continued.

From their corner of the precinct, all a poll watcher can do is see the mechanics: everything from how people enter the precinct and receive their ballots, to how they place them in the tabulator at the end.  There are also limitations to how many poll watchers can be in the space as well, according to Jake Rollow, Director of Communication for the Secretary of State. “The clerk can determine how many are allowed into the polling place at one time in order to ensure sufficient space for election workers and voters.”

With these boundaries, it's unclear how poll watchers could "watch very carefully." 

Poll Chalengers

As Ritchey alluded, It’s important to distinguish that a poll watcher is not the same as a poll challenger. And, not just anyone can walk in and be a poll challenger. “The process is handled by the party,” noted William Gordon, Chairman of the Washtenaw County Republican Party. If someone approaches them with the interest to be a poll challenger, he connects them with the state party who does the training—ideally at least 10 days before the election. “Once we are satisfied that they understand the process they are issued a credential from the state GOP to go to a specific precinct, or series of precincts where they are allowed to work.”

Gordon also offered some levity with his perspective. “The word challenger is kind of a little bit obnoxious. You’re really there to monitor to see if things are done according to the law. And on the occasion that someone is accidentally or on purpose allowing something to go on that is not according to the law, then the challenger is there to point that out.” Unlike poll watchers, poll challengers can interact with election inspectors, see how they are using the electronic poll book, and periodically check the numbers between the poll book and tabulator, among other things.

Well, that sounds more like “careful watching,” at least.

“By law the parties that are listed on the ballot have the ability to appoint challengers,” noted Ed Golembiewski, Chief Deputy Clerk, and Director of Elections, for Washtenaw County. This applies for any party on the ballot. But outside groups and special interests also had a window of opportunity to apply with a city, county, or a township clerk to appoint challengers. “That time has already elapsed. Three groups applied,” continued Golembiewski. The groups whose applications were submitted and approved by the Washtenaw County Clerk’s office before the October 14th deadline included the Michigan State Conference of the NAACP, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Election Integrity Fund. Just like poll challengers appointed by the parties, these outside poll challengers also carry a credential identifying the precincts where they’ll work.

Obviously, neither poll workers standing mute in the corner of the precinct, nor poll challengers who only interact with election inspectors, should interfere with voters voting. If they do, that’s the clear line where watching and challenging might transgress the boundary into voter intimidation.

“Voter intimidation and harassment are illegal,” clarified Rollow. “The Attorney General and Michigan State Police are communicating with local enforcement agencies to ensure that they know election laws and how to enforce them,” he continued.

This communication is also happening at the local level, where clerk’s offices are talking with local police to determine a plan in the event things go sideways next Tuesday. And, given the kidnapping plot against Governor Whitmer, the presence of armed protests at the state capitol this spring, the president’s earlier calls to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” and that we're still in a pandemic: things are already sideways.

“If any voter feels intimidated or harassed, they should contact an election worker, their clerk, or local law enforcement,” concluded Rollow.

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