John Botthoff, right, a poll watcher, observes election workers going through the signature verification process at the Jefferson County elections office on Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)
During the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, President Donald Trump urged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” for potential issues. But not anyone can walk into a polling place or election office and watch the process.
Poll watchers, also referred to election watchers, are volunteers who are certified and trained to observe election activities and report back to their affiliated political party if any issues arise. They can be present at any part of the process, including at polling sites and during signature verification and ballot counts.
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“For the people who are showing up and wanting to observe and have not met the requirements, they are going to be asked to leave,” said George Stern, Jefferson County’s clerk and recorder. “But nicely, and we will encourage them to take the steps that they need in order to come back and join us when they are in compliance with state law.”
Stern stressed that if a voter feels they are being intimidated, they should report it immediately to the county’s election staff.
“You’ll sometimes see people camped 101 feet away holding signs for their candidates, which is okay. It’s not okay if they come within 100 feet,” Stern said. “No one, whether they’re five feet away or 105 feet away, is allowed to intimidate voters. That’s a violation of Colorado law and federal law and they will be asked to leave.”
What Colorado law says about poll watchers
To qualify to be a poll watcher for the upcoming election in Colorado, a person must be an eligible voter who has been appointed by an authorized entity, typically a political party, according to Colorado’s secretary of state’s office. A poll watcher can’t be a candidate on the ballot or an immediate family member of one, and must be affiliated with the political party that appoints them.
After completing a training course on Colorado’s secretary of state website, a poll watcher will receive a certificate of appointment, which they will provide to election staff before observing any part of election activities. (Political parties or organizations can also conduct their own trainings, but they must be approved by the secretary of state’s office.)
Then, they are free to roam.
“There are limits on how many can be in each area or in each polling site,” Stern said. “But for the most part, they’re welcome to be there at any time and not limited in any capacity.”
Stern doesn’t expect Trump’s rhetoric around poll watchers to change anything. “We’re used to having watchers of all political parties,” he said. “We welcome them because they get to see the elections up close and get to see how accessible and secure they are and help us spread that message.”
Coloradans flock to sign up to be election workers or poll watchers
Stern has seen an explosion of interest from people wanting to be poll watchers or election workers.
“We were hiring about 500 temporary election workers and we had more than 3,000 applicants for those positions,” Stern said. “Normally, we would see maybe seven or eight hundred. So extreme interest in being an election judge, and we imagine that will carry over into watchers as well.”
Election judges, also called election workers, are hired as temporary employees by county election divisions to conduct and oversee various steps of the voting process. During the hiring process, they must pass a federal background check.
The Trump campaign has been soliciting volunteers to work as election judges and poll watchers for what it deems the “Trump Election Day Operations” team. On the team’s homepage, an explainer video says, “We all know that the Democrats will be up to their old dirty tricks on election day to make sure that President Trump doesn’t win. We cannot let that happen.”
The Democratic Party and other political organizations have also been campaigning to recruit more poll watchers and election judges during this election.
“People are very energized and focused on making sure that this election is safe and secure,” Joe Jackson, communications director for the Colorado Republican Party, said in an email. “Poll watching is important because it prevents fraud, and is a great way for voters to guarantee that their votes are secure and counted.”
Stern said it’s difficult to determine how many poll watchers will be observing election activities throughout the state.
“We’ll have parties certifying them to us up until like 6:45 on election night, so it’s impossible to predict now,” he said. “But we’re going to have 32 voting sites on election day. It’s conceivable that each party would have one watcher in each site, so 64 right there and then we usually have 10 at least hanging around our ballot processing center on the final few days.”
Steps in the voting process that warrant the most attention
In Jefferson County, poll watchers wear a yellow lanyard to identify themselves. “Almost every county has some way of identifying who’s there,” Stern said. “We use lanyards. Some use vests or name tags.”
Apart from hovering over a voter as they fill out their ballot, poll watchers can pretty much observe whatever step of the voting process they’d like.
“They are usually most interested in ballot processing and watching the signature verification process to make sure that they feel like judges are accepting or rejecting signatures in a way that seems right and makes sense,” Stern said.
The adjudication process also warrants more attention, according to Stern. The process is triggered when someone changes their vote on their ballot and the machine can’t determine the vote. The ballot will then be evaluated by a bipartisan team of election workers who will determine the appropriate vote.
“That’s a process that watchers obviously want to pay attention to because it’s introducing human judgment into the voting process,” he said.
John Botthoff, an unaffiliated poll watcher who was observing the signature verification process at the Jefferson County Elections Center on Wednesday, said most of the time he’s pretty bored.
“And that’s a good thing,” said Botthoff, who lives in Evergreen. “What you’re looking for is the mass. Someone walking outside with a whole box of something. But those things won’t happen because it’s too obvious. There are too many cameras, too many people, all of that.”
Botthoff, who’s in his 70s, has worked as a poll watcher in a handful of states over the years, including New Jersey, North Carolina and Texas. “I have to say, this is done very well here,” he said, gesturing around the election office in Golden. “But I still watch, just to make sure.”
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