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A closer look at the legality of poll watching

Stickers sit inside an elections office.
Hannah Schoenbaum
Stickers sit inside an elections office.

In some other states, voters at early polling locations have been confronted by campaign workers or poll watchers holding a camera and asking questions. That's not necessarily illegal.

As long as campaign volunteers are more than 40 feet from the front door of a polling location, they can record voters coming and going and ask questions about which candidates they’re supporting. Voters don't have to answer, of course. But the campaigners have a First Amendment right to take pictures and ask questions.

Virginia Commissioner of Elections Susan Beals says she has not yet been hearing of problems with surveillance of voters although she says some surveillance should be expected.

"So right now all of our ballot drop boxes are required by our ballot drop box security standards to be under the watch of a camera 24 hours a day," Beals says. "In terms of individuals, if there is a problem we would encourage you to report it."

The problem for voters and even election officials is knowing when people are causing a problem. J. Miles Coleman at the University of Virginia says these new, more aggressive tactics of guerrilla surveillance are prompted by disinformation and distrust of ballots that are not cast on Election Day.

"Our poll workers are probably some of the most under-appreciated people ever because they have to make a lot of these quick decisions like that or figure out how to deal with these types of tactics that bring it right up to the line of legality but don't quite go past it," Coles says.

As Election Day approaches, that line may be tested in ways it’s never been before.

In a related story, a federal judge has refused to bar a group from monitoring outdoor ballot boxes in Arizona’s largest county, saying that to do so could violate its constitutional rights.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Liburdi issued the ruling Friday.

Local and federal law enforcement have been alarmed by reports of people watching outdoor 24-hour ballot boxes in Maricopa County — Arizona’s most populous county — and rural Yavapai County as midterm elections near.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.
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