arrowSection 5.1 - Polling Place Rules

This topic is monitored by Moritz Law Professor Terri L. Enns

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Who may be present at the polling place in the 28 most competitive states in the November election?

A group of House Democrats recently asked the United Nations to send international monitors to observe U.S. elections. This entry is intended to describe who, by law, may be present at the polling place in each of the 28 most competitive states in this year's election and what powers are afforded to "challengers" or "poll watchers".

An examination of the laws in the 28 most competitive states in this year's election reveals a wide variety of approaches to the question of who may observe the voting process on Election Day. Some state statutes are quite permissive in that they allow virtually any member of the public to enter a polling place to observe as long as they are not engaging in certain prohibited activities. For example, Section 7.41 of the Wisconsin Statutes is entitled "Public's right to access" and provides that "[a]ny member of the public may be present at any polling place for the purpose of observation of an election, except a candidate at that election." Other statutes are highly restrictive, listing only specific persons who may be present, generally the voters (sometimes for a limited period of time), election officials, and possibly law enforcement officers. An example from this restrictive end of the spectrum is Section 3-1-37(a) of the West Virginia Code, which reads in part: "Except as otherwise provided in this section, no person, other than the election officers and voters going to the election room to vote and returning therefrom, may be or remain within three hundred feet of the outside entrance to the building housing the polling place while the polls are open."

In Ohio, other than voters casting their ballots, only election officials, employees, witnesses, challengers and police officers are permitted to enter the polling place. Ohio Rev. Stat. § 3501.35. In Ohio, a challenger is a person selected by a political party or group of five or more candidates who is allowed to observe all election proceedings while the polls are open. Witnesses, on the other hand, are only allowed to be present for the counting of votes after the polls close. Both challengers and watchers are required to take an oath of office. Ohio Rev. Stat. § 3505.21.

Click here for a chart displaying an overview of each state's statutes describing who is allowed at the polls (chart prepared by Mike Shecket)

Many of the states examined have similar measures that allow political parties to appoint registered voters of that state to be present at the polls and challenge the qualifications of voters. The various statutes use a variety of terms to describe persons other than voters and election officials who may be present at the polls while they are open.

Click here to display a chart comparing the titles and powers of these persons in each state (chart prepared by Mike Shecket)