Election Day - An Overview

Key Facts
States oversee elections, based on election guidance in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution.
Election fraud most frequently occurs on Election Day.
Election fraud can take a variety of forms, including: illegal assistance at the polls, impersonation fraud at the polls, false registration, duplicate voting, ineligible voting, buying votes, altering the vote count, and stuffing the ballot box.
Serving as an election judge or a pollwatcher are two important ways you can participate and help to ensure the integrity of local elections.
Some of the most egregious election fraud occurs in nursing homes; serving as a nursing home pollwatcher is one of the most impactful ways to ensure ballot integrity.

“Our Republic flourishes when citizens are confident that their vote is free, fair, and secure. Yet, according to a recent survey 81% of Americans believe that election fraud is a very real problem. This growing concern jeopardizes our entire system of government, eroding our trust in elected leaders and undermining our confidence in the system by which they govern  –  beginning at the polls and rising up through the highest offices in the land.”


Catherine Englebrecht, Founder, True the Vote


There are many components to free, fair and secure elections, and many laws and rules govern the people and resources involved in campaigns and voting.  

In addition to voting, the most effective way you can participate in elections is by serving as a pollworker, specifically as an election judge or a pollwatcher.  Serving in one of these roles can help ensure that election rules are followed, thus ensuring the integrity of the results.  This brief will focus on Election Day and your role in ensuring free, fair and secure elections.


How Elections are Organized and Run

Article 1 of the US Constitution provides the original guidance on elections being within the purview of the states.  While there have been many amendments and legislation since that, the general rule is that states oversee elections.


On an Election Day, voting takes place throughout the country in voting districts, which are comprised of precincts based on a geographic area.  Precincts are divisions of a larger geographic area such as a township or municipality.  In some areas, just one precinct votes at a single location.  In other areas, many precincts vote together at a so-called “voting center.”  Voters in each precinct report to a specific location for voting, where they may vote for federal, state and/or municipal candidates or initiatives, e.g. referenda.  Primaries take place anywhere from the late winter through summer  depending upon the schedule set by your state laws.  General elections are held the first Tuesday of November in even-numbered years.  


In large cities you might have a precinct of a few blocks; in rural areas this might include an area of a few miles.  In suburban settings a precinct might be several blocks square.  Voting districts are created by the state legislature in power at the time of the Census; some states require bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions to oversee the districting, while many do not.


Elections in most states are administered by citizens, called Election Judges, who are paid a modest stipend for their service on election day.  They generally are not paid government staff.  The conduct of elections is structured to be run by the two major political parties – Republican and Democrat – with the goal being that they act as a check on one another.


Ballots at each voting location are tailored so that individuals are voting only in elections relevant to them.  Some areas use paper ballots, which are then fed into voting machines.  Other areas vote electronically on “touch screen” machines that resemble ATMs.  Increasingly, counties are moving toward allowing voters to cast a ballot  at any voting location within the county, rather than only at the voter’s local polling location.  These changes are made to accommodate our increasingly mobile society where voters might spend their daytime hours at work in one part of a county but live quite a distance away and not return home in time to vote in their home precinct.  Technological advances have allowed this to happen, as “poll books” (lists of registered voters) are now usually electronic rather than paper and “ballots” are increasingly electronic rather than paper, as well.  Having electronic ballots allows any ballot style within a jurisdiction to be programmed from any location.


A precinct is allotted a minimum of three election judge slots from one major political party and two from the other major party; precincts alternate which party is present in the majority (e.g. odd numbered precincts have a majority of Democrat election judges, even numbered precincts have a majority of Republican election judges, or vice versa).  Larger precincts may be allotted more.  It is crucial to have judges from both parties represented in a precinct to ensure integrity.   When a precinct lacks a single bona fide election judge of one of the political parties, the statutorily-created system to provide “check and balances” to ensure a fair election in that precinct is lost.  


Two Important Roles at the Polls


Election judges are responsible for the administration of election procedures at a particular polling place on Election Day.  They are individuals representing each of the major political parties and hold ultimate authority in the polling place.


The workload of the election judges has increased substantially over the last several years, as many states have changed their laws to allow people to register in-precinct on election day — yet have not increased the number of election judges.   Recent additions to election technology  have also increased the complexity of this job and have led to many long-time, elderly election judges’ becoming no longer willing/able to serve.  But any time there is a shortage of election judges, the system has the potential to break down, making it more important than ever to get new election judges into the mix.


Pollwatchers monitor election procedures to ensure compliance with the law.  The ultimate goal is holding fair elections that report accurate election results.  Pollwatchers differ from election judges in that they have no legal authority in the polling location and are strictly prohibited from touching any ballots or other voting equipment.  Rather, they are election observers who report any irregularities at the polling place, thus helping to   ensure free and fair conduct of elections.  Many times, their mere presence is enough to deter fraud.  Reaching a legitimate, fair outcome requires following the law for every vote cast.


Elections are often determined by a small number of votes.  Some elections are won with margins of less than 30 votes as in the 2011 Chicago nonpartisan 45th Ward aldermanic contest between John Garrido (6024 votes) and John Arena (6053).  

For larger races, you may see bigger margins but again, just a few votes plus or minus  per precinct could swing the election the other way.  In 2014, Mike Frerichs beat Tom Cross for Illinois Treasurer by a little over 9,000 votes out of over 3.5 million votes cast; with 9,984 Illinois precincts in 2014, that’s less than one vote per precinct.  Recently in Virginia, a single vote was thought to have resulted in candidate Shelly Simond’s election, but the election was later determined to be a tie after a pollwatcher reported that a discounted ballot should be counted and a panel of judges agreed.  Every vote counts.


Unfortunately, in many races, voter fraud – or sometimes simply mistakes – takes place and with the small margins, it is easy to see how a small number of these activities can influence the outcome of an entire election.



Election Fraud

In addition to the harmful effects of election fraud, public perception of widespread election fraud can lead to lack of public trust in election results.  


To address fraud and increasing lack of confidence in the election systems, the Bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, led by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, outlined some federal level reforms to make sure “registering to vote is convenient, voting is efficient and pleasant, voting machines work properly, fraud is deterred, and disputes are handled fairly and expeditiously.”  To view the press conference footage click here.


In 2009 Catherine Englebrecht formed True the Vote.org after she and other citizens witnessed voter fraud firsthand.  “As the nation’s largest nonpartisan voters’ rights and election integrity organization, True the Vote exists to inspire and equip volunteers for involvement at every stage of America’s electoral process. We provide training, technology, and support to fellow citizens so that they can ensure election integrity in their own communities.”


What does Election Fraud look like?

Election fraud most frequently occurs on Election Day and takes a variety of forms.    Evidence of fraud is difficult to obtain and quantify as it happens in “realtime” and often is not detected unless it is observed, which underscores the importance of having pollwatchers with integrity present to oversee the voting process.  


The following are forms of election fraud you are most likely to see at polling places:


Illegal assistance at the polls:  Coercing or intimidating voters to cast fraudulent ballots often occurs at polling places, especially at nursing homes, and typically involves elderly and/or disabled voters. Some common examples include:

  • Failure to read all candidate names to the elderly person by the person assisting the voter
  • Elderly person is prompted by the assisting nursing home employee as to whom to vote for, or to extend a desired vote for a single candidate to the entire political party e.g. to effectively resurrect “straight party” voting (this was outlawed in Illinois in the 1990s)
  • Elderly person unable to communicate in any way, and yet that person’s ballot is submitted
  • An elderly person who declines to vote has his/her ballot voted anyway according to the desires of the person “assisting” the elderly voter


Impersonation fraud at the polls:  A voter uses the name/identification (such as a fake voter registration card) of another person.


False registration: Registering using a false name and/or address.


Duplicate voting: Voting more than once, often by requesting a vote by mail ballot and voting it, or voting on one of the last days of early voting, and then also voting on Election Day; alternatively, it may entail registering and voting in multiple locations on Election Day


Buying votes:  For example, paying cash or other items of value, often gift cards, cigarettes, or alcohol, to legally registered voters to vote a certain way


Ineligible voting: Including voting by individuals who are not U.S. citizens, or who are convicted felons (in states where this is prohibited), etc.


Hacking/altering the vote count:  Changing the vote count either at the polling location or from the central database where votes are stored  


Stuffing the ballot box: Indicated by boxes filled at or near 100%.  Illinois has several examples:


  • Centreville 7 in St. Clair County – 100.92%
  • Chicago Ward 7, Precinct 6 – 100%
  • Chicago Ward 5, Precinct 7 – 98.34%
  • Chicago Ward 27, Precinct 20 – 97.66%
  • Chicago Ward 50, Precinct 38 – 97.33% turnout
  • Chicago Ward 50, Precinct 16 – 96.89% turnout


If voter turnout  in a given voting area is 100% you can bet something is up.  Nobody was sick?  Nobody moved?  Nobody had anything keeping him or her from voting in that election?  


Outside of Election Day, absentee ballots (also called “vote by mail”) — which can be requested by registered voters who cannot be present at their precincts on Election Day, or would just prefer to vote in the comfort of their own homes — also have been known to host sources of fraud, including:


  • Combing voter lists for voters who haven’t voted in many years and then requesting an absentee ballot in their names and voting as them
  • Requesting absentee ballots in the name of family members who have no interest in voting and voting in their place
  • Compensating individuals to request an absentee ballot but having the ballots sent to an address specified by the payor; the voter has no further contact and the ballot is voted by someone other than the legitimate voter.


Across the country, instances of election fraud have been documented; it’s likely election fraud occurs in every state. Click here for some interesting real cases from various states and also see this report on voter fraud by The Heritage Foundation.


The good news is most voter fraud can be prevented at the polling location by a vigilant election judge or pollwatcher – but they need to be present, otherwise it will never be caught. Voter impersonation in polling places or inappropriately influencing of the elderly in a nursing home can only be caught when it’s occurring.  For example, a woman came to the Board of Elections at 69 W. Washington in Chicago in 2014 to vote a second time that day under another voter’s name, but fortunately a pollwatcher recognized her distinctive blouse.  No machine can catch these types of voter fraud – it requires observation by individuals.  



What you can do: Be an Election Judge or Pollwatcher

To serve as an Election Judge you must meet the eligibility requirements in your state.  Requirements vary slightly from state to state.  (This link at True the Vote.org connects you with election laws governing your state.)  You can also contact your state’s election authority — most often either a state Board of Elections or your state’s Secretary of State’s Office. For a list click here.


In general, most states require the following to be an election judge:

  • Be a citizen of the United States;
  • Be of good repute and character and not subject to the registration requirement of the sex offender registration act;
  • Be able to speak, read, and write the English language;
  • Be skilled in the four fundamental rules of mathematics;
  • Be of good understanding and capable;
  • Not be a candidate for any office in the election and not be an elected committeeman; and
  • Be registered to vote in the county in which the election judge serves e.g. a voter in suburban Cook County may serve as an election judge either in the suburbs or in Chicago
  • Complete a short election judge training session provided by the election authority


Each precinct is allotted three election judge slots from one major political party and two from the other.  To make the day more enjoyable, it’s completely permissible to request to serve with a friend or family member as a fellow election judge.


Election judges are responsible for the administration of election procedures at the polling place on Election Day.  This includes setting up the voting equipment prior to the polls’ opening, which happens at 6 a.m. in Illinois, and staying past the time of polls’ closing — 7:00 p.m. in Illinois — to tally the ballots, and otherwise secure the voting equipment.


Most election judges want to follow the law.  They may be harried by long lines and overwhelmed by the great number of details involved in their duties; politely pointing something out is often welcomed by a judge who appreciates the help.


Election judges also oversee pollwatchers, whose numbers vary depending on how many can be present on election day.  


Election judges may limit the number of pollwatchers if a polling place becomes too crowded, but must allow equal party representation to remain (but this very rare; often there is only a single pollwatcher present all day).


To become a pollwatcher, contact the campaign or political party of your choice regarding your willingness to serve for all or part of a day.  The candidate or political party usually provides a short training (flexible to your schedule, most have many options and also offer one-on-one training).  This is especially helpful for first-time pollwatchers.


Bring a friend!  A day volunteering will be much more enjoyable with a friend.  Many polling locations house multiple precincts; two friends can easily cover a few precincts this way, making a big impact.  


The qualifications of pollwatchers vary somewhat from state to state.  Some states do not require pollwatchers to be residents of the state; others require pollwatchers to be registered voters in the county in which they pollwatch.  


Pollwatchers are responsible for:

  • Observing the ballot box prior to voting,ensuring it is empty and ensuring machines start at zero
  • Being in close proximity to election judges in order to observe applications for ballots
  • Observing judges as signatures are compared, including being close enough to see the signatures (most states do not have a set distance, but a rule of thumb is four feet away, which is still close enough to see.)
  • Observing judges distributing and depositing ballots
  • Observing that provisional ballots are given when required, and that voted provisional ballots are placed in the secure receptacle provided for this purpose and not fed into the ballot optical scan machine with regular ballots
  • Observing that election judges are requiring 2 pieces of acceptable identification when someone registers to vote
  • Observing counting procedures, including provisional votes after the election is over
  • Keeping detailed records of what goes on in the polling place
    • These records are useful in the event of a legal challenge
    • Names and times of irregularities should be dutifully recorded
  • Observing the closing of the polling place
    • Ensure that at 7 p.m., the judges properly indicate the last person in line at that time and do not allow latecomers to join the line or vote
    • In the rare instance where a judge orders that a polling place stay open late, all ballots cast by voters who arrived after 7:00 p.m. are to be provisional ballots and are to be completely segregated, even from other provisional ballots cast earlier that day. (It’s possible that an appellate judge may reverse the order of the judge who ordered the polling location kept open late.)
  • Observing the judges tallying the ballots and electronically transmitting the results
  • Obtaining a copy of the results (“the tape”) to document the votes cast
  • Observing the judges properly securing the blank ballots to avert any possibility of their being improperly voted
  • Recording the serial number of the security “seals” the judges use to secure all voting materials
  • Calling to the attention (politely) of the election judges any incorrect voting procedure or apparent violation by anyone in the polling place
  • Challenging for cause the voting qualifications of a person offering to vote (very rare)
  • But they may NOT interfere with anyone’s right to vote


The mere presence of a pollwatcher likely averts the great majority of any illegal activity by adding transparency to the process.


Candidates, political parties, proponents of ballot referenda, and certain civic organizations are all permitted to have pollwatchers present in polling places.


This compendium from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission provides a comprehensive overview of laws in all 50 states governing pollworkers.  True the Vote also offers this resource of materials by state.



Pollwatching at Nursing Homes and Closing a Precinct: Biggest Impact for the Least Amount of Time


Pollwatching at a Nursing Home

Nursing home voting is unfortunately home to some of the most egregious fraud, due to the easy target that population represents.  Over the past several elections, it has been found that when no pollwatchers were present, large numbers of nursing homes voted at 100% turnout.  When pollwatchers were present — by their very presence preserving the rights of existing nursing home residents to choose whether to vote or to decline, as well as ensuring that nobody is voting the ballot of a deceased former nursing home resident — turnout has never been 100%.   


Nursing home voting is technically vote-by-mail voting but conducted at nursing home facilities in Illinois for those nursing home residents who have applied for a vote-by-mail ballot.  Often a nursing home will apply for ballots for all of its residents.  Some may move out of the nursing home before the time for voting, pass away, or simply have no desire to vote.


Voting is conducted by election judges, the number of which varies greatly.  Nursing homes are supposed to be staffed by election judges from the two major political parties equally, but this is often not the case.  Nursing home election judge positions are sometimes considered plum positions as they can be paid rather well for a short amount of time, compared to Election Day.  Pollwatchers are allowed to be present.  Often the nursing home will provide staff to provide one-on-one voting assistance to each elderly voter.


If you witness fraud while pollwatching at a nursing home:

  • Politely call the election judge’s attention to the issue.  If the fraud has already occurred, the goal would be to avert fraud from happening again.
  • If another election judge seems like he/she knows the rules and is willing to follow them, bring the issue to the attention of that election judge
  • If the state’s attorney has a representative present, bring it to the attention of the state’s attorney.
  • Call the campaign or political party for whom you are a pollwatcher; they may have someone nearby who can help, or can complain to the election authority.
  • Call the election authority to report the possible fraud.
  • Detail in writing the incident with as much detail as possible, including the date and time. An election judge’s name will be on his or her name badge, along with his or her party.  If the election judge has the name badge facing inward – so you can’t read it, jot down a physical description and ask for his/her name at the end of voting.  If he or she refuses to provide his or her name, indicate that refusal in your notes.


Nursing homes vote on the Friday or Saturday before Election Day; a few will vote on the Sunday or Monday before Election Day.   Most nursing home voting lasts less than three  hours, and sometimes just an hour.  You can help stamp out fraud by investing this short period of time.


To request to pollwatch at a nursing home, contact your political party of choice or your candidate of choice.  If your local political party does not exist or is not knowledgeable regarding nursing home pollwatching, contact your state political party of choice; they can get you connected with people who will be thrilled to have your able assistance.


Closing a Precinct (as a pollwatcher):

Similarly, by closing a precinct as a pollwatcher you can eliminate large amounts of fraud by simply being present.  Specifically, you would:


  • Arrive by 6:00 p.m. on Election Day and stay until voting machine data is processed, consolidated, and transmitted to the election authority, and all voting equipment and ballots are secured.
  • Ensure the polls close on time: that at 7:00 p.m. the election judges indicate the last voter currently waiting to vote and do not allow latecomers to vote.  At 7:00 p.m. the polling location is closed; any pollwatcher already inside earlier is allowed to remain but nobody may enter the polling location after this time.
  • As noted above, in the rare instance where a judge orders that a polling place stay open late, all ballots cast by voters who arrived after 7:00 p.m. are to be provisional ballots and are to be completely segregated, even from other provisional ballots cast earlier that day (though it is possible that an appellate judge may reverse the order of the judge who ordered the polling location kept open late).  Ensure that this law is followed by observation or a polite reminder to an election, if necessary.
  • Observe election judges process defective or damaged ballots, closing of the electronic log book, and transmittal of votes
  • Observe election judges secure blank ballots, to prevent the possibility of the ballots being voted during or after they are transported back to the election authority
  • Record the serial numbers of the “seals” that are used to secure all voting materials

Most pollwatchers are finished by 9:00 p.m., barring any major problems.



Take Action

To be an Election Judge or Pollwatcher:

  • Contact your local political party or candidate of choice regarding your interest; they will be grateful and will guide you through the process.  If you cannot locate a way to contact them, contact election authorities for your state.
  • For election judges, generally it’s best to contact them 4-6 months beforehand but some may have holes to fill and need last minute election judges.
  • For pollwatchers, the timing for applications tends to be more flexible (1-3 months in advance).   
  • In most states, applications are available from the local election governing body.  


You are doing a service to your community, state and country when you volunteer your time in making elections free and fair.  Find a friend and sign up.  It’s a great way to interact with voters and the voting process and in some cases can literally impact the outcome of an election by reducing fraud.  And your first hand involvement with the  electoral process will set an example to others around you and possibly inspire their participation.  This only helps grow the numbers of active and involved citizens and ensure free and fair elections as envisioned by our Founders and enshrined in our Constitution.



Additional Resources

List of Common Terms regarding elections.

Articles from each side of the controversial issue of Voter IDs:

Indiana turnout not affected by voter ID requirement“, Northwest Indiana Times, August 2014



Questions for Discussion

Aside from voting, have you ever volunteered on a campaign or in the election process?  What did you gain from the experience?

What has prevented you from participating in the election process?  What would encourage you to do so?

What types of voting fraud from the brief most concerned you?

What additional information would you need to participate as a pollworker?

What is your opinion on requiring voter IDs?


© 2018 The Policy Circle  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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