Poll watchers emerge as a flashpoint in battle over ballots

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A county election worker scans mail-in ballots at a tabulating area as an observer watches at the Clark County Election Department, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Las Vegas. Election officials in key battleground states pushed back on claims by the Trump campaign that Republican poll watchers were being improperly denied access to observe the counting of ballots, saying Thursday that rules were being followed and they were committed to transparency. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Election officials in key battleground states pushed back on claims by the Trump campaign that Republican poll watchers were being improperly denied access to observe the counting of ballots, saying Thursday that rules were being followed and they were committed to transparency.

Tasked this year with monitoring a record number of mail ballots, partisan poll watchers are designated by a political party or campaign to report any concerns they may have. With a few reports of overly aggressive poll watchers, election officials said they were carefully balancing access with the need to minimize disruptions.

“There were certainly a lot of eyes on the process in every absentee counting board all across our state,” said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat and the state's top election official. “I’m proud of how transparent and secure our process has been. I know that the truth is on our side here.”

Poll watchers have been a central element of legal battles that have erupted in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada. While counting was largely finished in Michigan, the work continued Thursday in Pennsylvania and Nevada where a narrow margin separated President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.

Monitoring polling places and election offices is allowed in most states, but rules vary and there are certain limits to avoid any harassment or intimidation. Monitors are not allowed to interfere with the conduct of the election and are typically required to register in advance with the local election office.

In Nevada's most populous county, officials said poll watchers were allowed in designated areas, told to comply with social distancing and mask requirements and required to be escorted by county representatives.

“When they sign in, they have to agree to follow the rules that are guided by statute. If they don’t follow the rules ... they will be removed from the location,” said Joe Gloria, the chief elections official in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas.

The Trump campaign had sought to halt the counting of mail ballots in the county, saying observers were being kept too far away to be able to see if signatures matched voter registration records.