Across the country, election officials have braced for the Nov. 8 midterm elections, as an environment of distrust and conspiracy theories has fueled increased scrutiny of the voting process. Armed activists were curbed from monitoring ballot drop boxes in Arizona, while election workers have been trained on how to de-escalate conflict.
In Illinois, concrete threats about violence in polling places haven’t materialized, said Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections.
“But we’re aware of what the atmosphere is,” Dietrich said, later adding: “We’re aware that we’re going to have a lot more poll watchers in polling places on Tuesday. And we know that a lot of those poll watchers are there because they have some degree of skepticism based on the allegations that came out after 2020, which were completely unfounded.”
Poll watchers have long been a feature of the voting process, with representatives for candidates, political parties, propositions and civic organizations all permitted to participate in the process.
Poll watchers are an integral part of the process by ensuring it’s proceeding as it’s supposed to, said Kevin Cullather, a spokesman for the Lake County clerk’s office.
But they’re also regulated by state law as to how many can be in a polling place and what they can do.
Poll watchers must be registered to vote in the state of Illinois, according to the law — so they can’t be bused in from another state, for example. And if they’re an organization, they have to register at least 40 days before the election — so, no last-minute organization watchers.
They must be credentialed by the local election authority or by the state. They can’t “electioneer” — push for one candidate or another, for example. They can’t record or take photos inside the polling place. And, unlike judges, they cannot handle any election materials, among other requirements.
Each candidate and political party can have up to two poll watchers in a precinct during a general election there to observe the voting process. Even a candidate themselves can serve as a poll watcher, the state law says. Civic organizations, proposition representatives and a “qualified organization of citizens” (the state defines that as an organized group of people who are watching out for election fraud, for example) can have one each.
In the past several election cycles, between six and 10 civic and qualified citizen organizations have been approved by the Chicago Board of Elections.
If a polling place gets overcrowded with watchers, a majority of the precinct’s election judges can decide to kick some of them out (they do this by “drawing lots,” the state says) if they feel they’re interfering with the election process.
Poll watchers are allowed to watch election judges set up the polls. During voting hours, they can stand near enough judges to watch them do their work, such as comparing signatures of voters and their addresses to their registration. But, they can’t be so close to an election judge as to interfere. They can challenge a person’s right to vote, but it’s the election judges who have the say on any irregularities or concerns brought forward.
In addition to all of these folks, law enforcement and state’s attorneys can poll watch if they choose, the state says.
Any given election, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights has between a few dozen to 200 poll watchers serving as the “eyes and ears” at polling places, said Clifford Helm, program counsel with the organization’s voting rights and civic empowerment team.
“Our goal and our role is to be there to make sure that voters are able to vote freely,” Helm said. “And if there are issues that are preventing people from voting, that’s one of the core reasons that we would send poll watchers out to be there.”
The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which is a civic organization registered to poll watch with the Chicago Board of Elections, has an election protection hotline that helps inform where their poll watchers may be needed. That may include gathering information on logistical issues, like a polling place not opening on time, to ensuring election judges aren’t mistakenly asking a voter for a form of ID to cast their ballot when they shouldn’t.
HANA Center, a nonprofit that advocates for Korean, Asian American and immigrant communities, focuses its poll watching efforts on ensuring Korean-speaking voters have full access to the polls. They’ll be focusing on five precincts in Chicago and a little over a dozen in Cook County, where Korean-language ballots are offered, said Youngwoon Han, a senior organizing manager at HANA Center.
HANA Center’s Executive Director Inhe Choi has served as a poll watcher herself and has seen firsthand that even if a ballot is in a voter’s language, other issues can arise, from conflicts with election judges to experiences that can leave a voter feeling intimidated.
“What happens is when we call for help, oftentimes… people (who) come to mediate the conflict are police,” Choi said. “And so then it just raises a whole other heightened fear and heightened confusion about why am I now being talked with police over voting? What did I do wrong?”
But the rules are clear — poll watchers can’t interfere.
“Poll watchers have no other right to intimidate voters than anybody else does,” Helm said.
If voters are concerned with a poll watcher, they can file a complaint and call the Chicago Board of Elections at 312-269-7870, said Max Bever, the board’s director of public information.
At Mikva Challenge, over 1,300 juniors and seniors in high school will be serving as election judges throughout the city Tuesday. Having members of the public involved in the voting process helps show people firsthand how elections are kept free and fair, said Meghan Goldenstein, the organization’s senior director of strategic initiatives.
“When they have the opportunity to be the people running their election, their precinct polling place, they see that they are the people and that there is no mystery man — that democracy is made possible by regular citizens who are able to give a day of their time to making this happen,” Goldenstein said.
Dietrich said he thinks one of the reasons why unsubstantiated allegations have persisted after the 2020 election is because many people are unfamiliar with how the election system works.
“They’ve never observed voting and they’ve never observed these very strict protocol for closing down a polling place and accounting for all those ballots and the security surrounding all the election equipment in the polling place,” Dietrich said. “I think anyone who is in a polling place because they’re skeptical on Tuesday, is going to leave reassured.”
Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics for WBEZ. Follow @tessa_weinberg.