October 22, 2021

Election officials: Real poll watchers are certified

After President Donald Trump urged his supporters to go poll watch on election day, officials said that’s not allowed and one SUNY professor said it’s unlikely to happen here in Cortland.

However, early voting starts today in New York, and Pennsylvania’s attorney general has said the Trump campaign’s practice of videotaping voters depositing their ballots in drop boxes may fall outside the poll-watching practices allowed in that state.

During the presidential debate Sept. 29, Trump said “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully … I am urging them to do it” when asked by moderator Chris Wallace if Trump would urge his supporters to stay calm and not engage in civil unrest.

The comments raised concerns.

“The concern is that people on their own will show up and engage in behavior that could be threatening or intimidating to people when they go to vote in person,” said Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland.


Voter intimidation

The following are examples of voter intimidation:
n Aggressively questioning voters about their citizenship, criminal record or other qualifications to vote.

• Falsely representing oneself as an elections official.

• Displaying false or misleading signs about voter fraud and related
criminal penalties.

• Other forms of harassment, particularly harassment targeting non-English speakers and voters of color.

• Spreading false information about voter requirements. You do not need to speak English; and you do not need to pass a test.

What to do if you experience voter intimidation

• In many states, you can give a sworn statement to a poll worker that you satisfy the qualifications to vote, and then proceed to cast a ballot.

• Report intimidation to the Election Protection Hotline at 1-866-OURVOTE or 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA (en Español).

• Report intimidation to election officials.

— SOURCE: American Civil Liberties Union


However, Cortland County Board of Elections commissioners Bob Howe and Tom Brown both said real poll watchers are individuals who have been certified by the election office or party chairmen.

“They’re there to observe and keep a list of people who come in to vote,” Brown said. Anyone else hanging out at the polling site is not allowed.

“There’s no loitering,” Brown said, noting poll inspectors will tell people to leave.

If the person refuses to leave, the poll inspector can call the sheriff’s department, Brown said.

“People have talked about becoming self-appointed poll watchers and bringing guns with them,” Spitzer said, noting that it was more of an extreme situation of poll watching.


Early voting runs today to Nov. 1. Click here for information on early voting including schedules and locations for Cortland, Tompkins, and Cayuga counties.


He said something like that would be universally intimidating, but it’s not the only way to intimidate people at polling locations.

“You don’t have to carry a gun to intimidate others,” Spitzer said.

Spitzer said there was an incident last summer in Virginia where people either trying to vote or register to vote were hampered by Trump supporters rallying there.

“That by itself would constitute impeding the democratic process,” Spitzer said.

They’re actions that are also illegal. However, Spitzer said situations like that don’t often occur, noting in both the elections of 2016 and 2018 there were few reports of poll watchers and voter intimidation.

“I think on Election Day, the vast majority of voting places will be fine,” he said.

But if you do run into a problem, Spitzer advises calling the local authorities.

“If it was me, I would call the local police,” he said.