Tennessee poll watchers see ‘democracy at work’ – Tennessee Lookout

When voters turn up at the polls across the state tomorrow, they will be able to see not only the familiar local poll workers, but also a growing number of newly accredited poll watchers.

Interest in becoming a pollwatcher in Tennessee appears to be on the rise, according to anecdotal reports. There are no statewide statistics on the appointment and accreditation of poll watchers, which are handled at the county level. But organizations and election officials are seeing more interest.

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

Davidson County Elections Administrator Jeff Roberts also noted an increase in interest in poll watching, with more poll watchers named in May – around 130 – than in previous county primaries. . For tomorrow’s election, 185 poll watcher accreditations have been issued, he said in an email.

Renee Parker Squander (Photo: Organize Tennessee)

In Tennessee, political parties, civic groups and candidates can nominate potential 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.

The League of Women Voters of Tennessee has a long history of training members as poll watchers. Poll monitoring was suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the group plans to resume poll monitoring in November, said Debby Gould, president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee. The League is currently preparing training materials for observers of the November poll. “We want to be sure that we can provide an accurate snapshot of the electoral process,” she said.

The group focuses on general issues, such as how long it takes people to get through queues to vote. The League also wants to make sure a voter can cast a provisional ballot if they don’t have proper photo ID.

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

Jasleen Singh is an attorney in the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, specializing in voting rights and elections.

In some states, poll watchers can 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. Laws vary from state to state regarding who can be a poll watcher and what they can and cannot do.

In the past, under challenger laws, voter fraud and disenfranchisement efforts have taken place, she said. There has also been a “really big recruitment” of poll watchers by groups that falsely claim the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. “If people go to the polls (as observers) with the intention of intimidating and challenging voters, especially in a discriminatory manner, this may have the effect of intimidating voters, which is illegal. “

Tennessee law allows poll watchers, working through specific election officials, to “challenge anyone who offers to vote in the election.” The law lists five grounds for recusal of a voter and also specifies how disputes are resolved. The five grounds are not being a registered voter and not voting provisionally; not be a resident of the compound; vote under someone else’s name; have already voted; and become disqualified from voting after being registered.

Sekander, of Tennessee, said Tennessee law prohibits voter observers from speaking to voters, which prevents intimidating interactions. The law says poll watchers cannot interfere with voters; they cannot prevent election officials from doing their job.

Poll watchers witness workplace democracy in its rawest form, she continued. To those convinced there is fraud at the polls, she said: ‘I dare you to watch the polls or read our reports to see what’s really going on’ during polling hours .

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

If people go to the polls (as observers) with the intention of intimidating and challenging voters, especially in a discriminatory manner, this may have the effect of intimidating voters, which is illegal.

– Jasleen Singh, Brennan Center for Justice

“Our ideal is that you have a fairly boring day, watching to make sure people can come in and vote,” she said.

Organize Tennessee assigns observers to polling places with large numbers of black and brown voters. His 10-year plan is to have poll watchers in all 95 Tennessee counties, ideally in every precinct and during early voting as well as Election Day, Sekander said.

Most of Organize Tennessee’s poll watchers are unpaid volunteers. About two weeks ago, the NAACP provided a grant to pay poll watchers in Memphis, but if not, Organize Tennessee may reimburse poll workers for the cost of their lunches as a token of appreciation.

The group was created to complement 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, Tennessee Education Association, NAACP, and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

She remembers the first time she voted. Sekander, from Memphis, was a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She had registered to vote but was unaware that under state law a first-time voter must vote for the first time in their home county. For her, it was Shelby County, six hours away.

She drove west, ended up at the wrong polling place, and cast a provisional ballot that ultimately didn’t count. “Why didn’t I understand? she wondered. The experience prompted her to work so that others would not have the same experience. “If these new voters show up and can’t vote,” she said, “it’s likely they won’t vote again.”

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