Observing Election Processing

version 9/6/2021

Ordinary citizens can watch election processing at the elections office, and often online. Each state has its own rules.

By observing, you show staff that people care, you encourage better procedures, and you can tell others how trustworthy the results are.

Watch as much as you can. Even if you don't know what the process should look like, watching will teach you.

Find allies in your state. Send suggestions to

That's all you really need to start. There's extra information below, if you have time, including a simple form if you want to take notes.


If you see anything that looks odd, ask which official to talk to. You can also tell an organization, reporters, 866-our vote (which is a national team of election lawyers), and map the incident at (here's info about map).


As the National Conference of State Legislators says, "Credible observers can help ensure that procedures are properly followed and can increase public confidence in well-run elections... Observers are trained to attentively watch without interfering. They examine not only Election Day activities, such as the casting of ballots, but also pre-election and post-election processes."


Schedule. Check what your state allows. Then learn from the local election office website, then ask staff only the most important remaining questions. Be reasonable, respectful, nice. Build an alliance with staff and reporters for better elections. Some offices post announcements inside their office.

1.     40 states require advance accreditation for some steps, so check the rules now. Qualifications vary. Some states require accreditation to watch centralized vote processing; some don't.

2.     Which steps of election processing are open to public? Only WV does not allow poll watching, but even there, election night counting, canvassing and 3% hand counts are done in meetings of the County Commission, open to the public.

3.     Have schedules been announced? When will they be? If the schedule and meetings are not online, ask for that. Calls show that people care

4.     Can central processing and election board meetings be observed online? If online, use sharpest possible video monitor. Where can you get minutes of past meetings? Election board meetings are important and many places can webcast them.

5.     If meetings are in person, call to ask about social distancing, and whether officials will wear masks to protect voters. Calls show that people care

6.     Wear mask. In big rooms are binoculars allowed?

7.     Do they restrict the colors of observers' pens, to prevent or identify source of stray marks?

8.     If your area still needs poll workers or other temporary staff, consider applying. You won't see as widely as observers, but you can become very familiar with the process and help it work.

9.     Maybe you can attend their training for poll workers or signature verification? Especially if it is online. Ask for manuals, which also may be online. An organization, Scrutineers, also trains signature verification online for $1.99 membership.



1.     Find others in your state who observe elections, to share the work and help each other report good and bad findings to officials, reporters, and wherever they will make a difference. Search on web for allied poll-watching groups, ask friends, candidates, check with Scrutineers, Citizens' Oversight, Election Verification Network, other civic groups, unions, business groups, political parties.

2.     Publicize the schedule of observable events to people and groups you know. No one can watch everything. Starred items below may be most important.

3.     Ask candidates to have volunteers observe everything.

4.     Many states allow more access for partisan observers. Decide whether to sign up with a candidate to be on their observer team.

5.     Publicize 866-our-vote and/or your local group to report problems.

6.     If you're a lawyer, is there an election judge on call? Can you have templates ready if needed?

7.     When you observe, introduce yourself to as many staff and observers as possible, try to write down their names and sketch the layout of the room, to help your memory later.


Examples include:


Great observation stories from Colorado:

Compare state rules:

Partial list of state handbooks:

Observers quell rumors:

Republicans' observers: 

Democrats' observers:

Florida precinct watchers' checklists and training:

Election security issues:


Steps to watch. You can print the short form at bottom to note names, times, events. This will help you remember what you see, to discuss with others. Signature may let lawyers use it under evidence Rule 803(5).

Even if you don't know what the people you watch should be doing, watching will teach you. Ask whom you should approach if you see something off, so you don't interrupt the workers and process.


A. Between elections

1.     What changes in law does the election office want?

2.     Destroying old ballots and erasing old electronic media after 22 months. (pages 75-79 of "Originals must be retained" for 22 months under federal law)

3.     Find the advertisements for printing, mailing and election machine contractors ("request for proposals" and contract decisions, months ahead).

4.     Get copies of contracts. Just ask. If they resist, state laws on open records are summarized at You can get help submitting and tracking requests at:

5.     When are temporary staff hired?

6.     When will designs be reviewed for ballots and envelopes. You may want to offer suggestions.

7.     Mailings of information to voters, if any.

8.     Attend public presentations, if any.

9.     When will training material for temporary staff be updated? You may want to offer suggestions.

10.  Public meeting to randomize order of candidates.

11.  Training for temporary central staff and poll workers


B. Absentee Ballots

1.     Processing requests, if any

2.     Printing, addressing and mailing ballots (usually done by contractors; you can ask for the contract)

3.     Receiving ballots, storage locations? Who has keys overnight? Who watches security cameras? Article on issues with storage:

4.     Cameras or staff at drop boxes? Article on drop boxes:

5.     Emptying drop boxes and delivering to central site. Numbered seals? Articles on issues with seals:

6.     Computer-checking signatures

7.     Hand-checking signatures (specialized form if you wish)

8.     Supervisor review of initial hand rejections. This is final, smallest step, so easiest to observe.

9.     Setting aside rejected envelopes for voters to cure, if your state does so. Sending cure notices to voters. Handling voter responses in person and by mail.

10.  Reviewing late arrivals for postmarks

11.  Pulling ballots from accepted envelopes. Are pens, briefcases, bags forbidden? Do they restrict observers' pens? How do they handle envelope with more than one ballot?

12.  Copying damaged ballots so they can go through ballot scanners for counting

13.  Sending and receiving UOCAVA (military) + remote disability ballots. All offices accept military ballots by email or fax on last days, a few let people with disabilities submit online.

14.  Copying UOCAVA+disability voter choices onto scannable ballots

15.  Sorting absentee ballots by precinct, if done

16.  Scanning and tallying absentee ballots. Are pens, briefcases, bags forbidden?


C. Election machines (voting, pollbooks and central count)

1.     Who has keys to storage?

2.     Loading ballot definitions

3.     Logic+accuracy tests (specialized form if you wish):

a.      Test include hand-marked and machine-marked ballots? Overvotes and undervotes?

b.     Test all candidates, with different number of votes for each to identify switched tallies

c.      Can observers see and get copies of test ballots? See results?

d.     Is every machine tested with every style of ballot that it needs to handle?

4.     Delivery of election machines and blank ballot papers to polling places:

a.      Who delivers? When are pick up & delivery? Can people observe?

b.     Could polling place owner or anyone else have access before poll opens?

5.     Watch for malfunctions of machines, memory devices, access by vendors

6.     Picking up machines from polling places


D. Early voting location(s)

1.     Who has keys? numbered seals?

2.     General observation. If significant problem or voters say machines switched their vote (staff may think voter error), report to a central group in your jurisdiction and/or 866-our-vote, and so they can see if there's a pattern.

3.     Are campaigns, press, or outsiders interfering with voters outside? Is anyone doing an exit poll outside?

4.     Opening and closing each day


E. Precinct voting

1.     Arrival time of poll workers, open to public? Ballot boxes empty? Ballots+machines arrive with seals? Machines showing zero?

2.     General observation. If significant problem or voters say machines switched their vote (staff may think voter error), report to a central group in your jurisdiction and/or 866-our-vote, and so they can see if there's a pattern.

3.     If you want to count voters checking in at some point in the day, you might ask pollworkers before and after you start how many voters they've checked in, to be sure their records are growing in line with the arriving voters.

4.     Are campaigns, press, or outsiders interfering with voters outside? Is anyone doing an exit poll outside?

5.     Are closing procedures well organized? Ask and write down how many provisional ballots and ordinary ballots were issued. Poll workers track these numbers from the sign-in book or poll book, not the voting system. They should be very close to the number of votes. People can see decisions on provisional ballots in step G1.

6.     Photograph poll tape if tallied at precinct. There are ideas at and and . Check later whether totals in your photo match election day totals published for that precinct.

7.     Carrying ballots + memory cards from polling places to central office


F. Election day and night

1.     Is there a practice session for election day or election night?

2.     Central office handling requests from precincts on election morning and election day

3.     Copying into central memory the memory devices from precincts, early voting, absentees, UOCAVA, disability. Seals?

4.     How do they prevent someone palming a new memory device into the system instead of the true one?

5.     Scanning and tallying ballots. How do they track groups of ballots to ensure each is scanned once and only once?

6.     Whenever staff have access to ballots, are bags kept out of reach, and black pens forbidden?

7.     When a ballot jams or otherwise fails to read, where does it go next? How is the rest of the batch handled?

8.     Re-reading ballots in case of problems?

9.     Transferring results to internet/public. How do they prevent the internet infecting the central election machines?

10.  (At home) Screen capture each time election results update. There are always rumors that some candidates' votes decrease, which should never happen. You can disprove (or prove) the rumors. You can also capture video on phone or computer with Windows+G on Windows, QuickTime on Mac, or other programs.


G. Processing after election night

1.     Processing provisional ballots; Public decisions? Good reasons to accept or reject?

2.     Adjudicating ballots with ambiguous votes, which the scanner set aside.

3.     Audit (checking machine counts) if your area does one: selecting random sample, getting ballots from storage, re-tallying them by hand? by machines? Visible to public? (specialized form if you wish)

4.     Certifying the results. States vary.

5.     Boxing ballots for storage, seals+keys? Map of state rules on access to ballots and ballot images.

6.     Recount, if any. This will be similar to steps F and G above. Details will depend on state law, and will include close observation by the candidates involved in the recount.


Starred items may be most important to observe


Form: On back, sketch the room & repeat any letter at left, for more space. Avoid black or blue ink, so no one thinks you could mark ballots. Use green, purple, brown, orange, red etc.


Observer Name, Organization if any, email / phone:



Start time(s)

End time(s)



____Number of government staff present by title (____election, ____council, ____police, etc). Some or all Names or descriptions:


____Number of election contractors present. Some or all Names:


Other observers, press, candidates, etc. present. Some or all Names:


General topic of activity (voting, machine-scanning, checking signatures, etc.). Note by hand, machine, onscreen:


Observations, and any follow up needed:


If it's not voter-by-voter, do they handle ballots in batches? Number per batch: _____envelopes or _____ballots or _____inches? How many batches did you see?


(If you feel comfortable:) I declare under penalty of perjury that this page and any attachments are true and correct, to the best of my knowledge and belief. Executed Date:

in (city & state): . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Signature:



Issue(s) which came up and resolution. Details: People involved, sequence of events, "direct quotes", times