As Republican lawmakers in major battleground states seek to make voting harder and more confusing through a web of new election laws, they are simultaneously making a concerted legislative push to grant more autonomy and access to partisan poll watchers — citizens trained by a campaign or a party and authorized by local election officials to observe the electoral process.
This effort has alarmed election officials and voting rights activists alike: There is a long history of poll watchers being used to intimidate voters and harass election workers, often in ways that target Democratic-leaning communities of color and stoke fears that have the overall effect of voter suppression. During the 2020 election, President Donald J. Trump’s campaign repeatedly promoted its “army” of poll watchers as he publicly implored supporters to venture into heavily Black and Latino cities and hunt for voter fraud.
Republicans have offered little evidence to justify a need for poll watchers to have expanded access and autonomy. As they have done for other election changes — including reduced early voting, stricter absentee ballot requirements and limits on drop boxes — they have grounded their reasoning in arguments that their voters want more secure elections. That desire was born in large part out of Mr. Trump’s repeated lies about last year’s presidential contest, which included complaints about insufficient poll watcher access.
Now, with disputes over the rules governing voting now at a fever pitch, the rush to empower poll watchers threatens to inject further tension into elections.
Both partisan and nonpartisan poll watching have been a key component of American elections for years, and Republicans and Democrats alike have routinely sent trained observers to the polls to monitor the process and report back on any worries. In recent decades, laws have often helped keep aggressive behavior at bay, preventing poll watchers from getting too close to voters or election officials, and maintaining a relatively low threshold for expelling anyone who misbehaves.
But now Republican state lawmakers in 20 states have introduced at least 40 bills that would expand the powers of poll watchers, and 12 of those bills in six states are currently progressing through legislatures, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.