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A woman in Sacramento, Calif. drops off her ballot at a vote center. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio A woman in Sacramento, Calif. drops off her ballot at a vote center. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

A woman in Sacramento, Calif. drops off her ballot at a vote center. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

Chris Nichols
By Chris Nichols October 2, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • In California, anyone can observe election proceedings as long as they do not interfere with the process or intimidate voters.

  • Observers can ask questions of poll workers, but they cannot harass, attempt to coerce or ask personal questions of voters.

  • Any campaigning must take place at least 100 feet from the entrance to a polling place or vote center.

President Donald Trump this week called on his supporters to monitor voting locations during the election.

"I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully," Trump said at Tuesday’s presidential debate with Joe Biden in Cleveland. "Because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it." 

The next day, Sacramento County’s registrar of voters said her office received several calls from people who expressed concern about possible voter intimidation at the polls. 

The same day, a coalition of 11 governors, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, released a joint statement responding to "recent threats to the democratic process and reports of efforts to circumvent the election results." 

Last week, Trump refused to say he would encourage a peaceful transition of power should he lose the election. 

The joint statement went on to say, "Any efforts to throw out ballots or refuse a peaceful transfer of power are nothing less than an assault on American democracy. There is absolutely no excuse for promoting the intimidation or harassment of voters."

Given the politically-charged 2020 election year, we wanted to know what activities are and are not allowed at the polls in California. 

What Rights Do Californians Have To Watch What Happens At Voting Sites? 

In California and across the country, people have the right to observe what happens at all voting locations and ask questions — as long as they don’t interfere with voting. 

Late last month, the California Secretary of State’s Office sent a memo to all county election officials outlining the public’s observation rights and responsibilities. Those rights include: 

  • Observing pre-Election Day activities such as voting equipment preparation and testing and vote-by-mail processing

  • Watching the proceedings at polling locations, including opening and closing procedures

  • Obtaining information from the posted voter list at the polling site and taking notes

 "We are a completely open, public process. Which means observers, whether you’re part of a group or not, you can come and watch any part of the process," explained Sacramento County Registrar of Voters Courtney Bailey-Kanelos. 

What Are You Not Allowed To Do At A Voting Site? 

With those rights come responsibilities. Most notably, poll watchers can’t "interfere with the conduct of the election," as outlined in the Secretary of State’s memo, which cites the California Election Code. 

The onsite election officials are given the authority to determine whether a person is interfering, such as by intimidating voters. 

Kanelos offered some examples:

"You cannot intimidate, harass or ask voters any personal questions and if you do then you will be asked to leave," Kanelos said. "Voter intimidation can be anything from an argument, it could be an attempt of coercion, it could be an attempt of influence. It could just be aggressive behavior." 

Poll watchers also can’t physically handle any voting materials or equipment without the express permission of the onsite elections official, according to the elections code. 

Additionally, observers can’t "display any campaign material or wear campaign badges, buttons or apparel" inside the voting location, the code says. 

What About Campaigning At Or Near A Voting Site? 

Any campaigning must take place at least 100 feet from the entrance to a polling place or vote center. That includes campaigning for a candidate or anything else on the ballot such as a voter initiative. 

Kanelos said campaign supporters cannot block people from entering a voting site, even if they are more than 100 feet away. She encouraged people to call their local election office if they’re blocked from entering or experience any intimidation. 

Exit polling of voters is permitted, as long as it is conducted at least 25 feet from the entrance to the polling place.

Kanelos said election officials partner with local law enforcement as needed. 

"If something comes up, then we definitely will let the local authorities know if there’s some sort of altercation or someone does need to step in," she said. "They’re aware in case they have to be deployed. But they are not to be deployed unless we call or there’s an emergency."

Finally, Kanelos said the number of observers allowed in Sacramento County’s voting areas will be more limited this year to comply with COVID-19 precautions.

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Our Sources

Courtney Bailey-Kanelos, Sacramento County Registrar of Voters, video interview Oct. 1, 2020

California Secretary of State’s Office, General Election: Election Observations Rights and Responsibilities, Sept. 28, 2020

Gov. Gavin News, Governors Release Joint Statement on Threats to American Democracy, Sept. 30, 2020

National Conference of State Legislatures, Policies for Election Observers, Oct. 12, 2016

The New York Times, Trump Won’t Commit to ‘Peaceful’ Post-Election Transfer of Power, Sept. 23, 2020

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