More Links in documents

New Project Examines U.S. Laws on Election Observation


Nandi Vanka attends a public event the week before Guyana’s 2015 election, which was the 100th observed by The Carter Center. Nandi is now an assistant in the Democracy Program researching laws that govern the observation of U.S. elections. (Photo: The Carter Center/ S. Ellison)

Impartial election observers help build confidence in the integrity of the voting process, and their assessments and recommendations help protect voters’ rights.

In many parts of the world, election observation is common — The Carter Center alone has conducted observation missions in 39 countries — but what about in the United States? What’s possible when it comes to observing elections here? How could observation by nonpartisan groups foster improvements that strengthen American democratic processes?

The Center, in collaboration with the National Conference of State Legislatures, has launched a project to find out.

The United States signed an agreement in 1990 to allow observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor its elections. But the situation here is complicated by the fact that the U.S. electoral system is decentralized, with elections administered at the state, county, and municipal levels. That means election administration laws — including regulations for election observers — vary widely across the 50 states.

Our project will look at all the laws that govern observers. We’re trying to determine which regulations apply to election observation across all states. We want to better understand the degree to which independent observers have access to the electoral process and to explore how impartial observation might help improve U.S. elections.

No election is perfect, and we believe election observers can provide data-driven analysis to help identify useful improvements.

The Carter Center has extensive experience with nonpartisan election observation and building consensus on election standards. In 2005, we helped draft the Declaration of Principles for International Observation (PDF), which establishes professional guidelines for credible, nonpartisan observation. Though we don’t observe U.S. elections — choosing instead to focus our efforts on emerging democracies and post-conflict countries — we believe nonpartisan groups have a role to play here in the United States.

Our project hopes to answer these key questions:

  • How do existing laws and regulations about election observers vary by state?
  • Who can be an election observer? In addition to political parties or candidate representatives, can citizen groups, academics, and international groups observe elections?
  • What is the process for accrediting election observers, and who is responsible for it?
  • Do election observers have access to the entire election process — from pre-election tests to Election Day polling, to post-election tabulating and canvass procedures?
  • How have states used observer reports and analysis from academic or nonpartisan groups to improve election processes in the past?

When we have some answers — including what laws are currently on the books — we’ll report out. In the meantime, if you have a story to tell that relates to being a poll watcher or a poll worker, we want to hear it!

Related Resources
Learn more about the Center’s Democracy Program

Posted in Countries, Democracy, Elections, Guyana, Peace

Print This Page E-Mail This Page Share


Post Your Own Comment

  • 1

    Harvie Branscomb on March 31, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    This is an important project. Elections have been “modernized” in some of the US states with very little concern for deleterious effects on election observation and oversight. Colorado is leading the country on some of these innovations. Several of us have spent most of the last 10 years or more attempting to reclaim access for watchers to observe Colorado elections for integrity. We have met with many obstacles.

    Recent changes to law seem invariably to benefit the officials and not the watchers. This is also often true for freedom of information requests and the law for this seems intertwined unfortunately with access for election observation. There is much evidence for all this in Colorado – where NCSL is headquartered.

    Too many innovations inadvertently make it harder to watch elections: early voting; vote centers; central count; highspeed tabulation; e-pollbooks; mail-in voting; signature verification. All make it likely the public learns less about how the election works. It has become more difficult to gain evidence from elections that would allow the public to measure election integrity. Processes need to be put in place to facilitate observation of a “modernized” American election. The Carter Center can provide much help in bringing US elections back in front of the eyes of its citizens.

  • 2

    Harvie Branscomb on March 31, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    and of course internet voting and other forms of remote electronic voting are difficult or impossible to monitor/observe.

  • 3

    nealmcb on April 1, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    Harvie is right. I’ve seen the same trend in Colorado.

    At the same time, there is a trend in the other direction, also in Colorado. For example we did a world-class example of a highly transparent Risk-Limiting Audit (RLA) in 2010:
    which I got to explain to an OSCE/ODIHR observer to Boulder in 2012.

    Colorado then went on to pass a law requiring RLAs statewide as of 2017, and to define requirements for Cast Vote Records to enable highly efficient ballot-level RLAs.

    With more hard work, and the kind of focus to this issue which the Carter Center can bring, hopefully we will succeed in getting to truly Evidence-Based Elections (

  • 4

    Harvie Branscomb on April 1, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Neal is correct too. One of Colorado’s innovations (with California) is the Risk Limiting Audit that is a way to have election insiders do the minimum work necessary to verify that the tabulation is sufficiently correct to confirm the election outcome by checking randomly selected paper ballots against their interpretations.

    If we combine that required internal risk limiting audit with public access to scanned images of anonymous ballots and also the patterns that were detected on each ballot, then campaigns and citizens at home can conduct their own pseudo-audits. With internal audits and external verification happening in parallel we can gain great confidence that ballots are adequately tabulated.

    Then we need to make sure that all of the ballots counted are eligible and that all eligible ballots are counted and that none of the ballots have been modified. Having lost precinct polling places in Colorado – where the public could have seen eligibility check and tabulation happening in front of them as they vote – we will need to design means to gain confidence in eligibility verification for remote voting.

    Election observation will be an essential part of that process. Watchers in Colorado can legally “witness and verify every step in the conduct of the election.” What this means in practice is a subject of considerable controversy in recent years.

    Some officials in Colorado would like that to mean watching only what election judges are actually doing. But that is not at all enough. We need to be able to see what staff are doing and have done: what the blank ballots look like and how they are stuffed into identifiable envelopes, what is on all election forms and reports as they are created, etc.

    It is very timely that an organization of international repute is taking an interest in this topic. Thanks to the Carter Center.

  • 5

    uvotenm on April 1, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    A key problem with public observation of elections is that, in my experience, it is difficult to get the public or the political parties energized to become involved unless there is a very close election.

    In my state, New Mexico, we managed to get public observation of post-election audits in the law, but the observers are defined as the same party-nominated observers that monitor the county canvasses of the election. The parties usually have no interest in getting these observers to come to the post-election audits, and as a result, they often go un-monitored.

    For observation purposes, it would be better if any member of the public could observe, but the downside to that is that, often, space is limited, so limiting the number of observers can be contentious.

  • « Back to main