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People Have Ideas About What 'Poll Watchers' Do. Here's What Texas Law Says They Can *Actually* Do.

An electioneer talks to a voter outside Ben Hur Shrine during the primary election runoff in July.
Michael Minasi
A poll watcher IS allowed to watch to make sure people aren't campaigning too close to a voting site.

Lee esta historia en español.

There seems to be some confusion about poll watching this election season. There are lots of calls for people to show up and make sure no shenanigans are happening at the ballot box.

This focus on poll watchers has raised fears about potential voter intimidation.

On Thursday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order limiting the number of sites in each county where voters can drop off mail-in ballots by hand — to one. He also ordered that poll watchers be allowed at these drop off locations.

But, before you grab your face mask and head down to your local polling place to “keep an eye on things," you should probably know what Texas law says about poll watchers. Some of it might surprise you.

The first thing you should know is you can't just show up.

You need to meet some criteria to be an official poll watcher. You must:

  • be a registered voter of the territory (e.g., city, school district) covered by the election and of the county for November general elections for state and county primary elections or other countywide elections;
  • NOT be a candidate for public office in an election held on the day the watcher seeks to serve (a candidate’s spouse CAN be a poll watcher);
  • NOT hold an elective public office;
  • NOT be an employee of an election judge or clerk serving at the same polling place;
  • NOT have been finally convicted of an offense in connection with conduct directly attributable to an election;
  • NOT be related to an election judge or clerk serving at that polling place.

Let’s say you meet all those qualifications. There’s something else.
Actual poll watchers must be appointed by one of three groups, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office:

  • a candidate,
  • a political party, or
  • proponents or opponents of a ballot measure (political action committees that have filed the appropriate paperwork)

In short, you must have been designated by someone who has an official interest in the election. You must come to the polling place with a document that includes the following information:

  • Your name, address and voter registration number;
  • the signature of the person(s) making the appointment;
  • the election and the number of the precinct where you are to serve;
  • an indication of the capacity in which the appointing authority is acting;
  • in an election on a ballot measure, an identification of the measure (if more than one is to be voted on) and a statement of which side the appointee represents;
  • an affidavit to be executed that you will not have possession of any mechanical or electronic means of recording images or sound while serving as a watcher unless you disable or deactivate the device; and
  • your signature.

Let's underline that a poll watcher may not possess a device that records sound or images while they are inside the polling place.

One other note: A maximum of two poll watchers can be on duty at a polling place at any one time.

OK, so now that we've got all the paperwork out of the way, what exactly can a poll watcher do?

Basically, they are there to watch. They can look for violations of state law – things like electioneering (campaigning too close to a polling place), tampering with voting equipment, bribing voters, voting illegally or “unlawful operation of a sound amplification device.”

Any violations should be reported to the election clerk or judge at that polling place. However, the watcher cannot discuss the matter beyond reporting it, unless invited by the election judge.

They can also observe vote tallying “to verify that the votes are tallied and read correctly.”

They must wear a badge identifying them as a poll watcher, issued by the election judge.

So what can poll watchers not do?

Basically anything other than watching.

  • They cannot talk to voters.
  • They cannot communicate with voters in any way regarding the election.
  • They cannot be inside a voting booth.
  • They cannot leave without the election judge’s permission, unless the watcher has been on duty for at least five hours.
  • Like election clerks and judges, they cannot question the reasonableness of a voter’s impediment to getting a photo ID, if the voter chooses to fill out a form saying they could not get an ID.

Can't believe I have to say this, but the Texas Penal Code specifically prohibits anyone from carrying a firearm, a knife with a blade over 5 and a half inches, a club or other weapons on the premises of a polling place during early voting or on Election Day.

Lastly, it’s a class C misdemeanor to loiter within 100 feet of the entrance to a polling place, so unofficial poll watchers, take note.

Got a tip? Email Matt Largey at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.

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Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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