There’s a lot of talk this election season about poll watchers and their role in monitoring next week’s election. While poll watching seems self-explanatory, it is actually somewhat nuanced.
The Vermont Secretary of State’s office has issued comprehensive guidance for local town clerks and those helping with the election this year.
The guidance notes that polling places are public and members of the public may observe the voting process inside the polling place. However, they must observe from outside the guardrail, not engage in any campaigning in the polling place and should otherwise not be disruptive or impede the voting process for voters.
General observation of the voting process is also allowed including people watching the counting process after the polls closed -- as long as those people stay outside the guardrail. People watching the process may not campaign or be disruptive.
What is a guardrail? That the active voting area that voters enter after they are checked in. A guardrail ensures that only people inside the rail area can approach within 6 feet of the ballot boxes and voting booths. Many towns use temporary rails or tables to create the guardrail.
People are allowed to challenge the right of voters to cast ballots as they are checking in. State statute is very specific on this issue. Each organized party and independent candidate may have up to two people at a polling place to challenge voters. Someone’s right to vote can only be challenged for two reasons:
- That person is not the person whose name appears on the checklist: or
- That the person has already voted in the election.
What is not on that list is to challenge based on residency – that the person is not a resident in the town. Residency is not a ground on which these challenges may be made.
If a challenge is made, the members of the town’s board of civil authority present at the polls meet immediately, informally hear the facts and decide whether to sustain the challenge or allow the person to vote.
If a town has over 500 registered voters there are no statutory requirements that people can ask to view the voter checklist during polling hours. Poll officers in such towns, may, at their discretion, allow people to view the voter checklist. All Valley towns have more than 500 people on the voter checklist.
People will not be allowed to wear campaign clothing that includes a candidate or party’s candidate or anything that endorses a candidate or a proposed ballot article. Although people are allowed to wear clothing that includes a phrase such as “malarkey” or “Make America Great Again.”
Guidance from the secretary of state’s office urges towns to establish an area outside where people can campaign.
“It will be important this year to adopt those policies and have them available at the polling place and to apply them equally to all persons wishing to campaign or observe the polling place from outside. The basic requirement is that voters must be able to have unimpeded ingress and egress to and from the polling place. It will be especially important this year to ensure that the voters are able to remain no less than 6 feet away from those campaigning when the voter is entering and exiting the polling place,” the state guidance notes.
“There is a lot of talk and concern nationally about harassment and intimidation at the polls. We expect that Vermonters across the state will conduct the polling process civilly and that you as presiding officers will handle these situations with your usual de-escalation techniques and will appropriately resolve them. Please know that because of this talk and the heated political environment, we have been having conversations with the state and local law enforcement to stand by to assist where needed. If any “poll watching” or protest type activity outside the polls gets beyond your control, please feel free to contact us for advice or call your local law enforcement if you require immediate assistance,” it continues.
Candidates and activists are allowed to stand outside polling places and hand out information as long as they don’t hinder or impede voters. There is no specified number of feet that candidates must be kept away from the polling place and each town clerk can establish the rules. Town clerks can prohibit political signs from being placed in the ground or affixed to something at the polling place proper. But town clerks cannot prohibit a person from standing and holding a sign outside the polling place.
And finally, this year’s election is taking place with all of Vermont COVID-19 health guidelines in place. Poll workers need to undergo health screening and their contact information and shift times need to be collected in case contact tracing is necessary. Masks and proper distancing are required of all people at all times inside the polling place.