Observing Election Processing

Version 10/10/2022


SHORT VERSION††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 1

LONGER VERSION†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 1

State rules†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 2

Allies††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 2

Examples†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 2

Steps to watch†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 3

A. Between elections††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 3

B. Absentee Ballots†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 4

C. Election machines (voting, pollbook)†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 4

D. Early voting location(s)★††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 4

E. In-person voting★†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 5

F. Election day and night★†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 5

G. Processing after election night★††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 5

H. Chain of custody★††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 6

I. Audits†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 7

OPTIONAL FORM FOR NOTES†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 8



      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."

State rules

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 early. 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. If you find manuals online, add them to the links


  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, 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 a state judge on call for election issues? 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.††††††††



Great observation stories from Colorado:

Stories from CO, GA, NC on video ($2 for lifetime access):

15:30 Loading electronic files from polling places by 1 person instead of 2

17:00 Need to object to unreasonable restrictions on observers

22:30 Created manual to tell police the publicís rights at election offices

23:55 Taking a printout of short section of law allowing public observation; helps in some offices

26:00 Talking to staffer in charge of random selection gradually improved what he did

31:30 Colorado changed from public random selection to a video which could be non-random or could have been recorded before the election

32:30 Usually see something wrong, if not fixed may need to tell candidates

33:10 Los Angeles staff opening vote by mail envelopes could see voterís name and votes. Speaking to boss led to putting envelopes with name down so no longer seen by staff

40:36 Hard to see in big room

44:04 A strategy is to watch one ballot or batch moving through a big room, to be sure of every step. Noticed envelopes had been opened in secret, & werenít being scanned. Took 5 months to get state to instruct counties that ballots must be scanned at same meeting when envelopes were opened

45:50 In Cobb County GA, 2020 saw that hand counts being entered in computer to add them up had such slow computer response staff could not tell if entered right.

48:17 In Fulton county, GA, 2020 not allowed to watch counts being entered in computer

48:55 Recommend Pentax Papilio binoculars to see work a few feet away better as well as distant

50:56 Try to get phone numbers of officials to call about problems (e.g. ballots sorted in wrong piles)

51:36 Team interpreting marks on electronic images of ballots where computer had trouble interpreting marks. Some marks appeared without indication whether computer interpreted mark at all. Turns out computer had ignored these marks. State has refused to adjust brightness control in scanners which can solve the issue. Still in court on this & other issues

56:20 Observers canít prepare for much of what you see; always new issues. Keep your eyes open, think, ask persistently

56:45 Let staff know that observers are witnesses who can help them by vouching for what goes well

59:15 If you can find poll worker training & manuals for your area, youíll see what workers are told (not available for central office processes)

59:44 Ask staff if you can attend wrapup meeting where staff discuss lessons learned from each election

1:00:30 Being concerned about election process is a good thing, but coming in with hostile attitude or chip on a shoulder does not lead to better work

Compare state rules on what people can watch: and who can watch voting (other aspects may have similar eligibility)

Partial list of state handbooks:

Observers quell rumors:

Republicans' observers:

Democrats' observers:

Florida precinct watchers' checklists and training:

California observation suggestions & links in 2012:

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 will designs be reviewed for ballots and envelopes. You may want to offer suggestions.
  6. Mailings of information to voters, if any.
  7. Who has keys to storage of election machines?
  8. Loading ballot definitions into election machines. Done by staff or vendor?
  9. Logic+accuracy tests (specialized form if you wish):
    1. Test include hand-marked and machine-marked ballots if jurisdiction allows both?
    2. Use official ballots from printing company and ballot-on-demand printers if jurisdiction allows both, not PDFs from office printer
    3. Test includes overvotes and undervotes?
    4. Test that machine ignores faint stray marks?
    5. Test all candidates, with different number of votes for each to identify switched tallies? For example 3 ballots for Bush, 2 for Gore, 1 for Nader, will show if machine switches their tallies.
    6. Can observers see and get copies of test ballots? See results?
    7. Model numbers of machines tested?
    8. Do machines have stickers saying certified by EAC (not required in most states, but if so, you can check later if theyíre true)
    9. Is every machine tested with every style of ballot that it needs to handle?
    10. Longer explanation about test decks
  10. Attend public presentations, if any.
  11. Public meeting to randomize order of candidates.
  12. When will training material for temporary staff be updated? You may want to offer suggestions.
  13. When are temporary staff hired?
  14. Training for temporary central staff and poll workers
  15. See also Chain of Custody section H, and check locks, cameras, seal specifications, seal log designs

B. Absentee Ballots

  1. Processing initial requests, if any
  2. Processing requests for replacement ballots
  3. Printing, addressing and mailing ballots (usually done by contractors; you can ask for the contract)
  4. †Receiving ballots, storage locations? Who has keys overnight? Who watches security cameras?

      Article on issues with storage:

  1. Cameras or staff at drop boxes? Article on drop boxes:
  2. Emptying drop boxes and delivering to central site. Numbered seals? Articles on issues with seals:
  3. Computer-checking signatures
  4. Hand-checking signatures (specialized form if you wish)
  5. Supervisor review of initial hand rejections. This is final, smallest step, so easiest to observe.
  6. 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.
  7. Reviewing late arrivals for postmarks
  8. 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?
  9. Copying damaged ballots so they can go through ballot scanners for counting
  10. 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.
  11. Copying UOCAVA+disability voter choices onto scannable ballots
  12. Sorting absentee ballots by precinct, if done
  13. Scanning and tallying absentee ballots. Are pens, briefcases, bags forbidden?

C. Election machines (voting, pollbook)

  1. Delivery of election machines and blank ballot papers to polling places:
    1. Who delivers? When are pick up & delivery? Can people observe?
    2. Could polling place owner or anyone else have access before poll opens?
  2. 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. In-person 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. Watch for malfunctions of machines, memory devices, access by vendors
  4. 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.
  5. Are campaigns, press, or outsiders interfering with voters outside? Is anyone doing an exit poll outside?
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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. Watch for malfunctions of machines, memory devices, access by vendors
  7. Whenever staff have access to ballots, are purses, backpacks, etc. kept out of reach, and black pens forbidden?
  8. When a ballot jams or otherwise fails to read, where does it go next? How is the rest of the batch handled?
  9. Re-reading ballots in case of problems?
  10. Transferring results to internet/public. How do they prevent the internet infecting the central election machines?
  11. (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. Watch for malfunctions of machines, memory devices, access by vendors
  2. Processing provisional ballots; Public decisions? Good reasons to accept or reject?
  3. When the election board meets: Are all members present & paying attention? Others present? Space & sound OK? Accessible? Start on time? Stick to agenda? Length? Public comments? Adequate discussion & explanation? Everyone acts courteously? (optional forms at end of LWV guide or use general form at end of this document)
  4. Adjudicating ballots with ambiguous votes, which the scanner set aside.
  5. Re-creating by hand ballots which were torn or otherwise failed to go through scanner. Also applies to voters who use Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot (FWAB), which is standard nationally, but doesnít match any particular jurisdiction's ballot format. . Should be teams of at least two, where both see original marks and new ballot (1 person reading old ballot to 1 person who marks new ballot, has no check on either). Team should write a number on each re-created ballot and its original ballot, so they can be checked later. Is it possible to photo-copy some damaged ballots onto paper of the correct size & weight to scan, instead of hand-marking?
  6. Audit (checking machine counts) if your area does one: selecting random sample, getting ballots from storage, re-tallying them by hand? by machines? Votes visible to public? Hand tally sheets published online? (specialized form if you wish)

  1. Certifying the results. States vary.
  2. Boxing ballots for storage, seals+keys? Map of state rules on access to ballots and ballot images.
  3. 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.


H. Chain of custody

  1. When staff open a sealed container, do they check seal number matches a seal log?
  2. When staff seal a container, do they enter seal number in a seal log?
  3. How is the seal log transported and secured?
  4. Ballot reconciliation (usually before or during canvass meeting). Expect differences of 1 to 3 ballots, from mis-counts by tired poll-workers
    1. For each precinct do they track number of election-day voters checked in = ballots in box + provisionals = in-person election results + rejected provisionals?
    2. Similar checks for early voting.
    3. For mail & drop boxes, do they track number of envelopes = mail results + rejected envelopes?
    4. Do they report election day separately from early voting and mail, for each precinct, so the counts can be checked?
    5. Can you get all these totals for some or all precincts?
  5. Locks on ballot storage? (info on locks by Blaze, Johnston and Greenberg)
    1. Number of locks with different keys?
    2. Who has those keys?
    3. Are there electronic logs of whose keycard or combination opens at what times?
    4. Is there a unique entry code for each person?
    5. Are the logs public?
    6. How secure from erasure and alteration are those logs?
    7. Is there literature on how easy to pick this model of lock is? (All physical & electronic locks are pickable, small and cheap ones usually easiest)
  6. Seals on stored ballots? (info on seals by Appel and Johnston)
    1. Is there literature on how hard it is to remove and replace your seals without detection?
    2. Is it possible to order extra seals with the same numbers?
    3. Can the item be opened without damaging the seal (eg zip ties can be opened by a knife point holding down the tab away from the indentations)
    4. Can you get used seals or new seals to check out?
  7. Security cameras on ballot storage? (info on cameras & security equipment by Johnston, Bannister and Schneier)
    1. Is there literature on how hackable your security cameras are?
    2. When did a security expert last examine the security cameras for hacking?
    3. Who watches the security camera footage?
    4. Is the security camera footage online?
  8. Security on other election records, like seal logs, and precinct reports of how many people voted?
    1. (same questions as above)
  9. Does the election system calculate hash values of ballot images, cast vote records, and other electronic files? (A hash value is a fixed-length string of numbers and letters generated from a mathematical algorithm and is unique to the file being hashed, as defined in CISA ST04-018)
    1. Are the hash values public?
    2. Does anyone check if files during the final canvass have the same hash values as originally calculated?
  10. EAC advises, ďEvery election office should have written chain of custody procedures available for public inspection prior to every election.Ē Most offices donít, but you can quote that and ask. The rest of that EAC advice absurdly focuses on paper signatures, not locks & guards.


I. Audits

States have different methods of auditing (checking machine counts) These steps apply:

  1. Do they give the public the election systemís results for each batch before random selection & audit, to prevent later changes? (rare)
  2. Selecting random sample: Taking numbers from a bowl leaves doubt whether every item had one slip of paper. Can you see all slips of paper? The most transparent is to pick items from a numbered list by throwing two or three 10-sided dice numbered 0-9, 00-90, and 000-900. Picking by getting random numbers from a computer program can be ok, but wonít convince doubters that program isnít hacked. Can you get the numbered list to see that it's complete? You can ask a few weeks ahead about their method & offer to order 10-sided dice, delivered directly to office, if theyíre open to that.
  3. Getting ballots from storage: can you watch? Does it happen as soon as sample is chosen, to avoid doubt about them being changed? (both rare)
  4. Can you see the entire paper flow to be clear everything which needs to be handled is handled once, and goes on to storage? (common in small offices)
  5. Retallying paper ballots by machines? by hand? Split between 2 teams so they donít know totals to match? Teams of 3 or 4 so 2 read & 2 tally?
  6. Votes visible to public? (rare)
  7. Reading totals from tally sheets is error-prone: Can you check? Copies for public? (rare, but may be permitted in small & friendly offices)
  8. What do they do when totals donít match?

Starred items may be most important to observe


Observer Notes: On back or new page, sketch room to remember it better, & continue responses, labeled by letter. Avoid black or blue ink, so no one blames you for stray pen marks.


Observer Name, Organization if any, email / phone:



Start time(s)

End time(s)



____Number of government staff present. Include title, names or descriptions when possible.

___ election staff ___ local officials

___ police ___ other


____Number of election contractors present. Names/descriptions, actions:


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


General type of activity: voting, scanning, checking signatures, etc.


Do they handle ballots in batches?† __Yes† __No†† If yes, number per batch:

_____envelopes or _____ballots or _____inches? About 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 in quote marks", times