What role do poll observers play in Virginia's voting process?

Posted at 5:52 PM, Nov 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-07 22:59:14-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Thousands of people across the Commonwealth are gearing up to man the polls this upcoming Election Day.

Henrico County alone, which covers 94 different precincts, currently boasts about 12,000 paid poll workers. Those workers are responsible for checking voters in, handing ballots, and answering questions voters may have about the process.

Mark Coakley, Henrico County's Director of Elections, has been working with the county's election process for 18 years, noting a rise in the number of poll observers.

"In previous years, for our 45 days of early voting, we've never had anyone. Now we have two a day come and watch for the 45 days of early voting," Coakley said.

Observers are trained volunteers authorized by the political party they're affiliated with to observe the voting process and cannot hinder the voting process in any way.

Virginia code allows authorized representatives who have undergone training through their political party to submit a letter to their respected chief officer of elections, at the specific polling place they plan to observe, to be "close enough to the voter check-in table to be able to hear and see what is occurring," without violating the guaranteed secrecy of a voter's ballot.

"They can be there when the polls open to make sure the tapes say zero on them, they're there during the day just to make sure that everybody gets the ballot, the correct ballot, and then they can be there at the end of the day to get the results," Coakley said.

Virginia Department of Elections allows one authorized representative of each political party with a nominee on the ballot in that election to be present before general and special elections.

One authorized representative of each independent candidate on the ballot in that election is also allowed. In primary elections, one authorized representative of each primary candidate on the ballot that election is permitted before polls open.

Poll observers must be a qualified Virginia voter.

While polls are open, officers of election may allow a maximum of three authorized representatives from each political party with a nominee on the ballot in that election and three from each independent or primary candidate on the ballot in that election when the poll book has less than three divisions/stations.

Poll observers are able to immediately appeal to the local Electoral Board if they are unable to observe the process.

"They'll want to go to their own precinct and observe and watch the process as it happens, so they feel comfortable. They can report back to the party chairs, 'I saw nothing today, but I was there to volunteer and watch the process,'" Coakley said.

A representative may challenge a voter who is known or suspected not to be a duly qualified voter. The person challenging a voter must complete and sign a statement of challenger form stating the specific reason for the challenge. The voter would then have to sign a statement attesting to their qualifications to vote.

Poll observers are not allowed to have campaign materials present while inside the polling place. They are not allowed to track who is voting for which candidate or try to influence a voter.

"They may have a sticker on them saying, 'I'm an observer.' They cannot have campaign material on them saying, 'Vote for my candidate that I represent," Coakley said.

What happens if a poll observer or a voter feels like the process has been hindered, or an observer or worker is not following the rules?

"We do have Chief Officers of Election that have gone through extensive training and know how to handle these situations. They've been through de-escalation training. They know when a situation arises to call our office or call any type of authorization that they need to handle," Coakley said.

More information on this year's election and what to expect can be found in our 2022 Voter Guide.

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