A View From The Inside: Who Is Watching The Poll Watchers?

Nov 4, 2016

When voters head to the polls Tuesday they’ll check in, get their ballots and proceed to vote. And watching the whole time will be monitors called poll watchers. They usually sit silently by on the lookout for any problems. This election cycle, they’ve gotten more attention than ever before. But as poll watchers watch the polls, who is watching the watchers?

It’s still early voting in Florida’s state capital and the county courthouse is lined with campaign signs and sign wavers—all stationed just beyond the 100 foot barrier… even the candidates are out.

"I’m going to do Souls to the Polls, then come up to vote. Because there’s no way I can do it Monday or Tuesday," says Republican state House candidate, Jim Messer.

He’s carrying a huge double-sign pole as he walks the streets. Nearby, a woman hands out fliers with little bubbles next to the Democratic candidates, and a man with another sign greets people as they pass by. A steady line of people file in and out of the courthouse. And it’s here where Donna Erlich is stationed. Sitting just off to the side of the action, on the lookout.

"I'm registered with the Democrats, the Clinton campaign," she says.

Erlich is an attorney. The first time she signed up to watch polls was during the 2008 Presidential election cycle for the Obama campaign. She says she wanted to do her part to make sure the election went smoothly, and she’s been doing it ever since. Her main function is to observer and report.

“I am not allowed to speak to any voters. I’m just observing in the building," she says. ".I can talk to the poll workers but I don’t approach or speak to the voters. I have a right to be in the building and just observe.”

She’s on the lookout for voter suppression or intimidation, ballot mistakes, Long lines, electronic breakdowns—that sort of thing. In Florida, poll watchers can be affiliated with candidates or political parties. The requirements are fairly simple says Chris Moore, Leon County's Assistant Supervisor of Elections.

“The only qualifications are that the voter has to registered in the county they submit, they can’t be a candidate, they can’t be a poll worker and they cannot be a member of law enforcement. Those are the only things they have to meet as far as whether they’re qualified or not," he says.

Less than a handful of the 200 plus poll watcher applications submitted to the county were rejected this year. Three Florida counties made Politico’s list of key swing districts: Duval, Palm Beach and Hillsboro.

Duval has more than 480 poll watchers. Volusia has more than 500. In both those counties, Republicans make up about a third of the watchers. Meanwhile Palm Beach County has more than 1,100 watchers, and sixty percent of them are affiliated with Republican campaigns. And it comes as Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump has encouraged his supporters to watch the polls.

“And you’ve got to everybody you know, and you got to watch your voting booths, because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania—certain areas," Trump said during a Pennsylvania campaign rally.

But Trump’s call for poll watchers for his campaign specifically has netted less than 200 people in Florida’s three main swing counties. The Clinton campaign by contrast, has three times that many in the same places. Leon’s Assistant Supervisor of Elections Chris Moore says overall interest in poll watching is the highest he’s ever seen:

“I will say we’ve had more poll watchers than I can remember. Especially during the Election Day poll watching list," he says. "In the general for ’14, I don’t remember many poll watchers then.”

And that trend goes statewide. Come November 8th, more eyeballs than ever will be focused on Florida’s polls.

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**WFSU News is participating in Electionland, a ProPublica project that will cover access to the ballot and problems that prevent people from exercising their right to vote during the 2016 election