An election observer watches the voting process in Fairfield County in 2012. (Photo: Matthew Berry, Eagle-Gazette)
COLUMBUS – In the first – and perhaps only – presidential debate, President Donald Trump urged his supporters to become “poll watchers.”
“I am urging my supporters to go into the poll and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it,” Trump said.
“Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period? Not to engage in any civil unrest? And will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified?”#debates#Debate2020pic.twitter.com/ZrXhVNGITO
— CSPAN (@cspan) September 30, 2020
For many voters, the term “poll watcher” was a new one, but the role has been around for years. In Ohio, they are called “observers” and their job is just that: observing elections and reporting possible problems to election officials.
Ohioans simply can’t show up on Election Day to watch the polls without taking several steps. State law and election rules dictate what an observer can and cannot do.
Who can be an observer?
Any registered voter in Ohio can be an observer, even if she doesn’t live in the county she plans to observe.
Some people are not eligible to be observers, including uniformed police officers, troopers, firefighters, armed forces or militia members. Candidates are typically not permitted to be observers.
How can I become an observer?
Observers must be appointed by one of three groups of people:
- A political party (either state or county) with candidates on the ballot.
- A group of five or more candidates.
- A ballot issue committee supporting or opposing an initiative on the ballot after filing a petition with the county board of elections.
The political party, group of candidates or ballot initiative committee then must give the county board of elections a list of observers using a specific form.
The group then gives the observer a certificate of appointment. The certificate includes information such as the observer’s name, the county where he is observing and a signature from the appointing group – the county political party’s leader, for example. Falsifying the form is a fifth-degree felony.
Before watching early voting or Election Day, observers must take this oath:
“You do solemnly swear that you will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties as an official observer, assigned by law; that you will not cause any delay to persons offering to vote; and/or that you will not disclose or communicate to any person how any elector has voted at such election.”
What can an observer do?
As the name implies, observers are inside early voting centers and polling locations to observe.
“Their role is exceptionally limited,” said Tim Burke, former chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and former Hamilton County Board of Elections member.
Observers can move freely wherever votes are being cast, processed, counted or recounted, according to guidance from the Ohio Secretary of State’s office.
“You are the eyes and ears of the Republican Party,” said attorney Dale Stalf, who recruited and trained observers for the Hamilton County Republican Party in past elections. “You’re not the spokesperson.”
If observers spot a problem, they will report it to election officials and the group that appointed them. Each political party has a slightly different protocol for reporting possible problems and state law is silent on how to accomplish that.
Stalf said the most common violation he saw was campaigning in prohibited areas. Candidates and parties can’t approach voters within 100 feet of the polling location’s entrance. This is marked off with two small American flags. Campaigners also can’t be within 10 feet of voters waiting in line, even if that line extends outside.
Burke said while mistakes happen – his wife once had to vote a provisional ballot despite voting at the same location for – the problems are not widespread.
“Our board of elections people do a very good job of keeping things running appropriately,” he said.
What can an observer not do?
There’s a long list of things observers cannot do. They include:
- No campaigning. That means they cannot wear clothing or pins that support a particular candidate.
- No firearms.
- No talking to voters under most circumstances. Polite greetings are allowed.
- No intimidating, harassing or attempting to influence voters or precinct election officials.
- No touching election materials.
- No photographing or recording anything that would violate voters’ privacy or intimidate them.
“It’s a very limited role, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Stalf said.
This fall, observers must wear a mask or face covering while inside. Those who don’t could be removed.
Can an observer be removed?
Observers who impede or disrupt an election can be removed.
Only certain election officials and the group that appointed the observer have the authority to remove an observer from his post. The observer would forfeit his certificate of appointment.
Have other questions about voting in Ohio? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out The Enquirer’s guide to voting here. You can also text us voting questions via a partnership with ProPublica called Electionland. Find out more here.
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