What are poll watchers? A look at rules for election observers in California – San Bernardino Sun


Ahead of the midterm elections, election officials have noted an increase in interest to observe the process, including the picking up of ballots from drop boxes.

The ability to observe ballot counting is not new, but there has been renewed attention on the process – and who is encouraging people to sign up as poll observers – in the aftermath of the false theories the 2020 presidential election was wrongly decided.

Election officials across the country have warned of potential disruptions or voter intimidation, particularly after officials said individuals armed with weapons have shown up to ballot drop boxes in Arizona. The FBI has cautioned about potential threats to election workers and other election crimes.

But election observing has long been a valuable transparency tool, said Pam Smith, president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan organization that examines technology’s impact on elections.

“If you don’t have the ability to observe and make sure the processes are happening correctly, that (results in) a big gap, and people will fill in gaps in information with whatever they imagine,” Smith said.

“We have that ability to observe here (in California) perhaps even more so than in other states, but we also have the responsibility not to interfere, not to get in the way of democracy carried out,” she added.

In California, observers can watch all stages of the election process, from in-person voting to the processing of mail ballots to post-election audits.

Election officials and observers are prohibited by state law from interfering with the election process, including campaigning, collecting private voter data, and more, the Secretary of State’s Office details.

More specifically, the Orange County registrar allows both in-person and remote observations, the latter a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Observers are allowed to be in vote centers as well as the Registrar of Voters’ Santa Ana office to observe the process.

Observers can watch audits and vote tabulations, take notes, challenge whether staff are following procedures, and ask questions of a vote center lead or other designated supervisor as long it does not interrupt the conduct of the election process. Observers will be given a badge upon signing in and must wear it while “maintaining a professional and respectful manner,” according to guidance from the registrar.

Observers cannot go into an occupied voting booth, display any campaign material, directly challenge a voter, touch election-related equipment or staff, prevent other watchers from observing, or use cell phones or cameras outside of designated areas, according to the guidance.

Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties provide similar guidance to their observers on their websites.

Voter protection and election integrity

Both the state Republican and Democratic parties have launched “Voter Protection” or “Election Integrity” efforts throughout California.

The California Democratic Party’s voter protection team – which includes a hotline, attorneys, and poll watchers – is the largest in the country, it announced in September. The party said then its voter protection team had already fielded more than 300 calls to its hotline. (A spokesperson did not respond to a request for updated figures.)

Harmeet Dhillon, who oversees the California GOP’s election integrity operation, said this year’s efforts are a continuation of the 2021 recall effort.

This year, the party has trained more than 4,500 “election integrity volunteers” and provided information to thousands of Californians on being a poll worker or more actively involved in the election process, Dhillon said.

“I’m excited about the commitment of the party to this grassroots level – empowering individuals not just to get out the vote but to make sure that the votes are counted and the public has confidence in the election,” Dhillon said.

According to the secretary of state, California exceeds federal requirements for election security. Votes are cast on paper ballots or have a voter-verified paper audit trail. Equipment used to count and cast ballots has to be certified and kept offline.

In Los Angeles County, ballots are placed in sealed boxes once the polls close on Election Day. Workers will account for unused ballots and separate out vote-by-mail ballots and provisional ballots. Then, the ballots are transported to designated check-in centers around the county where they will be collected by sheriff deputies who will take them by boat, car or helicopter to the Tally Operation Center in Downey.

Ballots are checked in and inspected prior to tabulation, according to the LA County registrar.

In Orange County, voted ballots are handled by teams of two election workers – ensuring no one is left alone with them. All 121 drop boxes are bolted to the ground and each has its own key. Workers who empty the boxes take random routes, and their vehicles are tracked by a GPS system.



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