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Poll Workers Deliver The Election As Partisan Poll Watchers And Challengers Observe

Sarah Trujillo

Poll workers are key to any election: they help voters cast their ballots, answer questions, and ensure things run smoothly at voting centers. Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover oversees the county’s approximately 1,000 poll workers. She spoke with KUNM’s Yasmin Khan about what voters can expect at the polls Tuesday, including the presence of partisan poll watchers and challengers, and COVID-19 precautions. 

LINDA STOVER: We've got all COVID protocols at every location, social distancing, a lot of [poll workers] are wearing shields and mask. We've got gloves, we fog each location, and we clean down after every single solitary voter.


KUNM: How do you protect the voting rights of someone who refuses to wear a mask? And how does that impact poll workers?


Stover: Well, it's disappointing when somebody refuses to wear a mask, but they do get to vote. So we try to put them at whatever location is farthest away from everybody else and let them vote. And then when they leave, we clean everything up real good. We cannot refuse them the right to vote.


KUNM: When I went to vote the other day, I saw that there were poll workers, poll watchers. I've also heard of poll challengers. Who are these people, and what is the difference?


Stover: Okay, poll workers work for the clerk's office and are temporary hires that we hire to work for us during the election season. They've all taken a class and they've signed an oath of office, and then they deliver the elections to the public. The poll watchers and challengers are assigned to the different political parties. So if you say you're a libertarian, and you want to be a poll watcher, you would go to either your party's county chairman or your state chairman and ask them to appoint you as a watcher or a challenger. And then they would notify the Secretary of State through a letter saying "I'm going to appoint Linda Stover to be a challenger or a poll watcher." And then the Secretary of State notifies the county clerk in the county where you want to be.


KUNM: So are poll watchers and poll challengers the same?


Stover: No, a watcher only watches. A challenger can ask a question. If he feels or she feels that there's something out of the irregular, they can request an explanation of it. They are limited on what they can do and how much they can interfere as far as they can interfere. They can't talk to voters, they can't interfere with the voting itself. They would have to talk to the presiding judge.


KUNM: And do poll challengers or poll watchers have to identify themselves in any way?


Stover: Yes, [their identification badge] has to have their name and their position, either challenger or watcher, and their party.


KUNM: How is this year different from other years? And what training have poll workers gotten to deal with potential conflict or voter intimidation at the polls?


Stover: This year is no different than any other year, we're always on the watch out for any kind of intimidation or problem at a poll. So that is built into the classes that they take before they become poll workers. Whether you have somebody that's wearing political clothing that has to be turned inside out before they vote, whether somebody's saying to somebody else in line, and then goes and tells the precinct judge "this person is causing me grief" - that would be the way it's done, you just need to be aware of what's going on in your surroundings.


KUNM: A recent national poll showed many voters are worried about intimidation by the police being near the polls. So how would you decide when a problem arises to the level of calling law enforcement?


Stover: The precinct judge at the polling location is the boss of that location. So it would be her determination that she would call the election central hotline, the "war room" is what we call it, and report to them and then they would determine whether it could be handled internally or if we needed to call the sheriff's department, or perhaps the state police or the FBI even.


KUNM: Have you seen any conflict, voter intimidation or suppression at the polls during early voting?


Stover: I have not heard any of that. You know, knock on wood. And I really mean this, I think things are going really well in New Mexico as far as the polling locations. I know there's people riding around in cars and trucks honking their horns, but they have not impacted the polling locations.


Well, I'm really pleased to hear you went and voted and that you voted in person. People need to really participate and not just observe this one.


Find more information on what New Mexico poll watchers, challengers and observers are allowed and not allowed to do at the Secretary of State's website. 

If you experience any harassment, intimidation, or discrimination at the polls, call the voter protection hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE.

Yasmin Khan covers worker's rights in New Mexico, with a focus on Spanish-speaking residents. She is finishing her Ph.D. in human geography and women & gender studies at the University of Toronto where she studies refugee and humanitarian aid dynamics in Bangladesh. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from UNM. Yasmin was director of The Americas Program, an online U.S. foreign policy magazine based in Mexico City, and was a freelance journalist in Bolivia. She covered culture, immigration, and higher education for the Santa Fe New Mexican and city news for the Albuquerque Journal.
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