Tennessee poll watchers see ‘democracy at work’

By: - August 3, 2022 12:59 pm
A sign reminds voters they need photo ID to vote at polling station at Hillsboro Presbyterian Church on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A sign reminds voters they need photo ID to vote at polling station at Hillsboro Presbyterian Church on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

When voters show up at polls across the state tomorrow, they may see not only the familiar local election workers but also a growing number of newly credentialed poll watchers.

Interest in becoming a poll watcher in Tennessee seems to be on the upswing, anecdotal information indicates. There are no statewide statistics on the appointment and credentialing of poll watchers, which is handled at the county level. But organizations and election officials are seeing more interest.

One nonprofit group, Organize Tennessee, has trained more than 450 poll watchers since it started in 2019, and it expects to have 75 poll watchers in locations in 15 counties for Thursday’s primary elections. The group had poll watchers in seven counties three months ago in May’s county primaries, said the group’s executive director, Renee Parker Sekander. The group was started to supplement the work of organizations that register voters by providing year-round voter support, she said. Her own experience as a college student and first-time voter informs her work. 

Davidson County Election administrator Jeff Roberts also noted an increase in interest in poll watching, with more poll watchers appointed in May – about 130 – than in previous county primaries. For tomorrow’s election, 185 poll watcher credentials have been issued, he said in an email.

Renee Parker Squander.  (Photo: Organize Tennessee)
Renee Parker Sekander. (Photo: Organize Tennessee)

In Tennessee, political parties, civic groups and candidates can name prospective poll watchers. They submit the names to county election commissions, which review the names and issue credentials that are presented when observers show up at the polls. 

Tennessee’s League of Women Voters has long trained members as poll watchers. Poll watching was on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic but the group plans to resume poll watching this November, said Debby Gould, president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee. The League currently is preparing training materials for November poll watchers. “We want to be sure we can provide an accurate snapshot of the election process,” she said.

The group focuses on broad issues, such as the time it takes people to move through lines to vote. The League also wants to make sure a voter can cast a provisional ballot if he or she isn’t carrying appropriate photo ID. 

“We’re not interested in ‘gotcha’ moments,” said Gould, a past president of the League’s Nashville chapter and a member since 2004. Poll watchers are trained to respect the privacy of the voter and to avoid interfering with the work of election officials at the polls, she said. Their work helps build confidence in the election system, she said.

Jasleen Singh is counsel in the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, focusing on voting rights and elections. 

In some states, poll watchers may challenge voters, she said. Such laws – the Brennan Center calls them challenger laws – have been around for many years and some date back to before the Civil War. The laws vary from state to state regarding who can be poll watchers and what they can and cannot do.

In the past, voter fraud has been used to justify challenger laws, which can be employed to disenfranchise voters, she said. There also has been “really significant recruitment” of poll watchers by groups that claim falsely that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. “If people are going to polls (as poll watchers) with an intention to intimidate and challenge voters, especially in a discriminatory manner, that can have the effect of intimidating voters, which is illegal.”

Tennessee law does allow poll watchers, working through specific election officials, to “challenge any person who offers to vote in the election.” The statute lists five grounds to challenge a voter and it also spells out how challenges are resolved. The five grounds are not being a registered voter and not voting provisionally; not being a precinct resident; voting under someone else’s name; having already voted; and having become ineligible to vote after having been registered. 

Organize Tennessee’s Sekander said Tennessee law forbids poll watchers from talking to voters, which prevents intimidating interactions. The law says poll watchers cannot interfere with voters; they can’t prevent election officials from doing their jobs.

Poll watchers are witnessing democracy at work in its most raw form, she continued. To those who are convinced there is fraud at voting places, she said, “I challenge you to poll observe or read our reports to see what’s actually happening” during polling hours. 

Most of those who want to be poll watchers with Organize Tennessee are new to the experience, she said. There’s a lot of nervousness; they don’t want to be combative; they want to watch and help. 

If people are going to polls (as poll watchers) with an intention to intimidate and challenge voters, especially in a discriminatory manner, that can have the effect of intimidating voters, which is illegal.

– Jasleen Singh, Brennan Center for Justice

“Our ideal is that you have a pretty boring day, that you watch to make sure people are able to come in and vote,” she said.

Organize Tennessee assigns observers to polling places with large numbers of Black and brown voters. Its 10-year plan is to have poll watchers in all 95 of Tennessee’s counties, ideally at every precinct and during early voting as well as on election day, Sekander said. 

Most of Organize Tennessee’s poll observers are unpaid volunteers. About two weeks ago, the NAACP provided grant money to pay poll watchers in Memphis, but otherwise, Organize Tennessee can reimburse poll workers for the cost of their lunches as a gesture of appreciation.

The group was set up to supplement the work of voter registration groups by providing year-round, nonpartisan voter protection. Organize Tennessee is affiliated with CivicTN, also known as C3Table, a nonpartisan civic engagement group with more than 20 participating organizations including NOAH, the Tennessee Education Association, NAACP and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

She recalls the first time she voted. Sekander, from Memphis, was a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She had registered to vote but didn’t realize that under state law, a first time voter must cast their first vote in their home county. For her, that was Shelby County, a six-hour drive. 

She drove west, ended up at the wrong polling place and cast a provisional ballot that ultimately wasn’t counted. “Why couldn’t I figure it out?” she asked herself. The experience prompted her to work so that others don’t have the same experience. “If those first-time voters show up and can’t cast a vote,” she said, “it’s likely they won’t vote again.”

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Kathy Carlson
Kathy Carlson

Kathy Carlson is a veteran newspaper reporter and copy editor, with stints at the Nashville Banner and Tennessean. At the Tennessean, she worked on the police and business beats. She later wrote about employment law for M. Lee Smith Publishers. 1 For the past several years, she has been a freelance journalist. As a contributor to the Nashville Ledger, she has written about COVID-19, public health, education, voting during the pandemic, and a variety of governmental, legal and policy issues. Several ofher Ledger articles have received first-prize recognition 2 in Tennessee Press Association annual competitions. She will be working as a volunteer poll watcher with Organize Tennessee on Thursday.