Poll watchers: What’s legal for them to do Election Day, during early voting

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Voters in Chatham County and throughout Georgia can soon began casting their ballots in person as part of the “early voting” process. But will voters encounter unwanted attention inside their polling place?

The issue of poll watching is in the national spotlight after President Donald Trump indicated concerns about the voting process, even in-person voting, in last week’s debate.

“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen,” said the president.

Those comments provoked concerns in some quarters about possible attempts to intimidate voters. We checked with local election officials and the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office regarding the law and the rules for “designated” poll watchers.

“Not just anybody off the street can come and be a poll watcher,” said Colin McRae who is the chair of the Chatham County Board of Registrars. “They are typically designated by the local (political) parties.”

“Poll watchers do come to both the election day polling places and our early voting polling places,” said McRae.

He says the local campaigns provide the list of potential poll watchers to the Board of Elections prior to the early voting period or prior to election day and then the board gives those persons “badges that designate them as an official poll watcher.”

“Only somebody with an official badge is allowed to act as a poll watcher,” said McRae. “Otherwise you’re not allowed to just come in to the early voting or election day polling place and just lounge around because you want to watch what’s going on.”

McRae says if you’re in line to vote you can certainly view what’s going on but you can’t interfere in anyone else’s voting process. “You can certainly view what’s going on as you are in line waiting to vote, that’s obviously your right, but if you’re not in line to vote you’re not allowed to come into the polling place unless you have the badge of a poll watcher.”

Even an officially designated poll watcher has restrictions and is not allowed to speak to voters or to interfere in the election process.

McRae also says that that interference also continues outside the polling place. Anyone with campaign signs or someone clearly campaigning for a particular candidate must be 150 feet from the polling place.

Local election officials say that is 150 feet from the last voter in line or if there is no one line outside it is 150 feet from the door of the polling place.

“All of that has to be kept at a distance for a reason, i.e. to avoid any appearance of intimidation of voters or attempting to sway someone’s vote, ” says McRae.

McRae told us he certainly isn’t expecting any local problems but says if there is an issue that there will be Chatham County Police and Savannah Police available.

“We will have law enforcement available for the early voting process and who will be on-site at our main office. They can assist if we learn of any attempts to violate the state rule that prohibits any non-designated poll watchers from entering the premises,” he told us.

Here is information from the Secretary of State’s Office:

Poll Watchers – O.C.G.A. § 21-2-408

A poll watcher is a person named by a political party, political body, or candidate who is
authorized to enter the enclosed space to observe the conduct of an election and the counting and recording of votes.

(d) Notwithstanding any other provisions of this chapter, a poll watcher may be permitted
behind the enclosed space for the purpose of observing the conduct of the election and the counting and recording of votes. Such poll watcher shall in no way interfere with the conduct of the election, and the poll manager may make reasonable regulations to avoid such interference.

The poll watcher shall wear such badge at all times while serving as a poll watcher.

A poll watcher cannot:

• Talk to voters
• Check electors lists
• Participate in any form of campaigning while behind enclosed space or in advance
voting location.
• In any way interfere with conduct of election or advance voting and a poll manager may
make reasonable regulations to avoid such interference.
• Use photographic or other electronic monitoring or recording devices.
• Use cellular phones in the enclosed area or advance voting location.

Can a poll watcher be removed from the polling place?

Yes, a poll watcher may be removed by chief registrar, poll manager, or superintendent, if after being warned, he or she persists in interfering with the conduct of the election.

What must a poll watcher take to the polls?

The poll watcher shall have a letter signed by party chairperson and secretary, containing the name of official poll watcher, address, precinct or advance voting location assigned, and name and date of primary or run-off primary. The poll watcher shall wear the badge at all times while serving as a poll watcher.

Where may a poll watcher be in the polling place?

A poll watcher may be permitted behind the enclosed space to observe the conduct of election, and the counting and recording of votes.

Can a poll watcher be removed from the polling place?

Yes, a poll watcher may be removed by chief registrar, poll manager, or superintendent, if after being warned, he or she persists in interfering with the conduct of the election.

If a poll watcher observes an infraction, what are next steps?

A poll watcher shall report any infractions or irregularities directly to chief registrar for advance voting location, or the superintendent for Election Day precincts, NOT to the poll manager.

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