General instructions: Observing election processes that promote accurate counts

These instructions cover observing elections processes that occur before Election Day, and after the polls close. For instructions on how to observe while the polls are open, contact a group such as Wisconsin Election Protection

These instructions focus on observing four election processes related to counting votes. Rapid adoption of election technology after the Presidential vote-counting debacle of 2000 fixed some problems while creating others.  The most serious problem it created is that vote-counting is no longer controlled either by citizens or by our local elections officials.

Many imagined that automation would remove the risks of bias and error by removing humans from the process. But the truth is that computers don’t remove humans from the process; they only make them invisible, in the form of anonymous programmers who work for voting-machine companies, technicians who service the computers, or unauthorized hackers.  We also naively imagine that voting machines are immune to the same sorts of malfunctions we expect of every other machine in our lives—overheating, losing calibration, random glitches, whatever.

Numerous computer-security measures protect our voting machines before every election. However, citizens cannot observe any of these measures, and even our elections officials cannot observe some, such as the writing and testing of the vote-counting computer code and the manufacture of the machines themselves. For example, Wisconsin state law prohibits our voting machines from being equipped with wireless communication capability, but only the manufacturers know for sure whether communications chips were or were not installed.  

Nevertheless, we and our election officials can determine whether the security measures worked and whether our election results are correct. Processes that can help to protect accurate counting or detect miscounts are:

  1. Pre-election voting-machine tests;
  2. Poll-closing activities;
  3. Canvass meetings; and
  4. Post-election audits.

Why should citizens observe?

We often talk about transparency—the openness of governmental functions to public view and appraisal—as if it was the sole responsibility of public officials. But if citizens don’t show up to see what the public officials have to show, transparency cannot be achieved.

In addition to the obvious benefit of preventing fraud, transparency benefits both public officials and citizens. Conscientious public servants are proud to have the public see the quality of their work, because they know that doing so builds confidence in them and in election results. They know that if doubts arise about the elections process, citizen observers protect them from unfounded suspicions. All  public servants benefit from the observation in the way everyone benefits from observation and feedback: We are more careful, more thorough, and less likely to cut corners when we know someone is watching.

Observing has benefits for the observer, too. No other experience comes close to improving understanding of our elections process the way observing can—why things are done the way they are, all the unexpected oddities that can arise during even simple procedures, etc. After you observe even one elections procedure, you will be more credible and authoritative when you speak to others or advocate for changes.

Let the clerk know you’re coming and what you want to observe.

You have a right to show up unannounced at any procedure that is open to the public, but there are several benefits to calling ahead and letting the clerk know you will be there and what you want to observe.

  • The clerk might have some additional information you need. For example, the county clerk may have provided the municipal clerks with some special instructions for this round of machine testing that the clerk might be willing to share with you.
  • The clerk will be able to alert the workers that an observer will be present, explain your rights to them, and let them know what to expect. At many procedures citizen observers are rare, and normal human beings tend to get nervous when their work is subject to surprise inspection.
  • Knowing that you will be looking to see whether the process follows prescribed instructions will give the clerk an opportunity to review those instructions before the event. If they know observers are coming, the officials will be more likely to follow the instructions, and that’s a good thing.

Prepare by reading the regulations or instructions for the activity you will be observing.

One thing Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board (GAB) does well is make available to the public the same instructions they provide to the clerks. Links to GAB’s instructions for each of these activities are in the detailed instructions for each activity, available on the WGN website.

You don’t need to memorize the procedures, but having read through them ahead of time will enable you to:

  • know what to expect;
  • notice any steps that might be skipped or done in some way other than specified;
  • come prepared with some questions; and
  • make your questions clear and understandable, such as by using correct terminology.

Bring instructions, paper, pen, and maybe a camera.

Bring a copy of the statutes, regulations, or GAB instructions for the process with you, so that you can refer to them as the process takes place. (For references, see observers’ instructions for each process.) If you see something that you question, it will help to be able to point to the specific regulation or requirement.

Bring materials for note-taking, in case there is something you want to document or ask about later.

Taking photos or videos has pros and cons. Many municipal clerks realize it’s often in their own best interest to have someone photographing the procedures, to prove they were done correctly if they are later questioned. If something goes very wrong and you’d like to document it, having a camera or smart phone with you is a good idea.

However, taking pictures or videos also has drawbacks. Being normal humans, many elections officials are camera-shy and simply don’t like to be photographed, so weigh the benefits of taking photos or videos against the possibility of more tension and less cooperation. Although you have the right to take photos and videos in events that are open to the public, it never hurts to be considerate.

Arrive a little early.

Most election-related activities begin precisely on time, so showing up a little early is a good idea.  Arriving early allows time for cordial introductions and allows you to ask the official in charge about his or her expectations for observers’ conduct.

In particular, let the official know you might have questions during the process. Most election officials will be happy to explain anything you don’t understand, as long as answering your questions doesn’t interfere with the work. Try to clarify, before the process starts, who will be available to answer your questions and whether the official has any concerns or limitations he or she would like honored.

Arriving early also allows you to observe preparation for the event, such as the voting machines being set up and turned on for the pre-election voting machine test. When you’re observing poll-closing, it may be necessary to arrive early; if you arrive after polls close, you may be locked out.

Observe, don’t participate.

Citizens who want to participate in running elections can volunteer to be trained as poll workers or even run for the job of municipal or county clerk. Observing is a different job with a different purpose. 

To “observe” means to give impartial, careful attention to something, for the purpose of seeing, learning, and evaluating. When an observer begins to do the work or coach it, he or she loses objectivity and loses a certain amount of ability to notice things that he or she is not working directly on.  In addition, an observer who coaches the people running the process will lose the opportunity to learn how they do things when he or she is not participating.

Finally, interfering could get you thrown out. So before you observe, familiarize yourself with GAB’s simple instructions for citizen observers ( ). Notice that different rules apply for observing while the polls are open and observing at other election events. For example, photography is prohibited while polls are open, but allowed after the polls close.

Ask questions, and respect the election officials’ authority.

As an observer, you are not participating but you cannot always understand what you see unless you can ask questions and get them answered.

When you notice election officials not following the instructions, don’t immediately conclude they are making an error. Ask, while being careful to phrase your questions in an information-seeking, not a challenging, way—at least until you need to get more assertive.

Sometimes clerks have to adapt the instructions to accommodate things such as unique features of their voting equipment or some other sort of special circumstance. As long as the purpose of the process isn’t impaired, don’t be too concerned with adjustments a clerk might decide to make.

If you believe the departure from instructions violates a statute, point it out to the clerk or person in charge without contradicting his or her authority in front of people he or she is supervising, if at all possible. That will provide an opportunity for him or her to correct, rather than defend, the error.

If the error is serious and not corrected, encourage the election official in charge to report the issue to higher election officials, and let him or her know you will be doing the same. Write down what happened as soon as you can, in clear, succinct, factual detail, and report the problem to higher election officials. (See more detailed instructions at the end of observers’ instructions for each procedure.)

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A printable pdf version is this document is availabe through a link on this page.

These instructions can be improved by your feedback. Please comment below or email your suggestions to us at [email protected] We particularly invite suggestions from observers who have used these instruction at a poll-closing, and from election officials including people with experience as elections inspectors.


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