Reporters Beware: Election Observer Myths Are Easy to Spread, But Still False

FILE - In these Sept. 2012, file photos Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, boards a plane in Denver, Colo,
FILE - In these Sept. 2012, file photos Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, boards a plane in Denver, Colo, and President Barack Obama gets off a plane in Tampa, Fla., during an intense campaign in competitive states. Obama and Romney each have a specific mission for the string of three debates that starts Wednesday night, Oct. 3, 2012. Obama, no longer the fresh face of 2008, must convince skeptical Americans that he can accomplish in a second term what he couldn't in his first: restore the U.S. economy to full health. Romney, anxious to keep the race from slipping away, needs to instill confidence that he is a credible and trusted alternative to the president, with a better plan for strengthening the fragile economy. (AP Photos)

Are you a reporter covering polling places tomorrow? If so, you've probably already familiarized yourself with the rules of polling places. But what you may not know could make you look foolish. Below are a few myths you should avoid repeating. The facts below may vary by state and I by no means think this is a complete or perfectly representative list.

1.) Partisan "election observers" will attempt to commit voter intimidation inside polling places. (For example: "Democrats and rights groups said poll watchers in some states have been trained by partisan groups that want to prevent their political foes from voting, and that many of the efforts against voter fraud are really attempts to curb voting among minorities and others who tend to vote for Democrats."

Poll watchers in many states are selected by stakeholders -- i.e. political candidates, parties, or organizations advocating for or against propositions on the ballot. In other words, involvement with a political party or group is more of a qualification than a disqualification. Whatever the case, the training they receive -- no matter the party -- focuses on the wide complexity of state laws covering behavior in the polling places. Complaining about "slowing down" the voting process ignores the very real role that poll observers have in ensuring the legitimacy of the election's results.

2.) Outside polling places, these election observers will create even more trouble. (For example: "Many more poll watchers are likely be outside voting precincts -- possibly in large numbers -- and could scare off some potential voters, civil-rights advocates say."

These are not actual poll watchers by any legal definition, but people peaceably assembling outside the "buffer zone" of the polling place. If they block the path to voting or electioneer, depending on state laws, they may be committing a crime. But calling these "poll watchers" simply because they can see a polling location from where they are is an oversimplification.

3.) Poorly trained poll watchers have the power to debilitate an election. (For example: "The training of some poll watchers has come under scrutiny since September, when a secretly recorded training session for Republican poll watchers in New Mexico became public."

The presumption is that if observers are poorly trained, they will obstruct the election, but election observation has been around for years, and this year is probably the first to see large-scale, coordinated efforts by numerous organizations. This is an improvement over previous years, where election observers received less training. In fact, some observers receive no training at all which provides no check on political appointees in charge of polls. When making a value call on whether the training this year is particularly bad, it's worth asking in comparison to what. Previous years also had election observers -- were they better trained?

In any case, I am not aware of any groups that have advocated for election observers to receive similar training to poll supervisors and poll staff -- something that would allow election observers to guard against voter fraud or suppression. I am also not aware of any states that have an open-door policy on poll-training.

In any case, if a poll observer is clearly challenging votes too frequently and without any merit, some state laws permit poll supervisors to dismiss the observer, but requires they fill out an affidavit to do so.

4.) Poll watchers are Republicans.

Each major party involved in the election can select a poll watcher, as well as candidates, and unaffiliated groups involved in a proposition drive on the ballot.

5.) People will be able to name which groups inside the polling places are conducting voter suppression.

If you're hearing "reports" of concerns about voter suppression inside a polling place, and ones that name an organization, it might be worth finding out how they know who's responsible. For one thing, observers are often not permitted to wear any identifying tags. For another, they're not allowed to communicate with anyone except for the poll supervisor or assistant poll supervisor.

6.) Poll watchers should not be looking at voter information.

In most states, poll watchers must be able to hear and see the interactions between poll workers and voters. That includes when voters provide workers with identification (depending on state requirements). In Florida, for instance, poll watchers must be able to see that the worker is verifying the address on the identification with the address on the voter rolls. One operating principle is that poll watchers must be able to see the ballot at all times (except, of course, when the voter is voting).

7.) Poll watchers think they can challenge however and whoever they want.

The poll supervisor makes the ultimate call as to whether a challenge will be sustained. In some cases, poll watchers can't challenge voters at all.

8.) Poll watchers can ask questions of voters, particularly about voter eligibility.

Poll watchers are typically prohibited from talking to voters at all. In fact, the only people they can speak to are the poll supervisors or assistant supervisors.

9.) Poll watchers are the only politically-charged figures in the polling place.

Poll staff in every polling station are typically divided evenly between the major parties, most importantly, the poll supervisor and the assistant poll supervisor.

10.) Election fraud isn't real and we don't have enough evidence to warrant election observers intimidating voters.

Election observers are a normal part of polling procedure: Even the Justice Department notes that there are areas that warrant special attention. Providing better training to citizens to ensure that electoral results are more reliable is a positive thing for democracy. It's also non-partisan -- observers can't unilaterally deploy Voter ID laws unless they've been passed in the state.