Nonpartisan Election Observation

Nonpartisan Election Observation in the U.S.

Trust in the U.S. democratic process is declining. Given the range of challenges that plagued the 2016 and 2020 elections, The Carter Center believes that the democratic process and American elections need champions now more than ever. Our goal is to build a nonpartisan movement of citizen observers who are excited about democracy and want to do their part to promote secure and accessible elections.

What is Nonpartisan Election Observation?

Nonpartisan election observation is an impartial process where trained observers systematically gather data about an election in order to assess key aspects of the process and report on the degree to which the election was fair, peaceful, and credible. Grounded by facts and evidence, trustworthy observers validate the critical work being done by those on the front lines of our democracy.

Who Participates in Observation?

Nonpartisan observers are citizens, neighbors, and fellow voters. Observers cannot be party actors or advocates — in fact, observers agree to follow a strict code of conduct to ensure they remain nonpartisan and don’t interfere with the voting process.

How Does Observation Work?

Throughout the election calendar, teams of observers are stationed at polling places, election offices, and other satellite locations where election operations take place. Each team collects data using a standardized set of questions about the election process. They also record general observations and anything noteworthy they see. That data is then collated, analyzed, and summarized in periodic reports that are released to the public.

Unlike partisan observers — also called “challengers” or “poll watchers” — who generally look for activity that could undermine their own party’s or candidate’s interests, nonpartisan observers have no stake in the election outcome. They do not get involved or interfere in election processes, even if they see something take place that should not happen. They are trained to understand the election process as specified by law and to report on whether Election Day procedures are being correctly followed.

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The chart below offers a quick look at some of the key similarities and differences between the work of nonpartisan, partisan, and election protection observers.

Roles of Election Observers
Nonpartisan Observation Partisan Observation Election Protection
Demonstrates the community’s interest and support for elections that are credible, transparent, accessible to all voters, and that represent a true democratic process check mark check-mark.svg check mark
Reinforces the efforts of civil society and voting rights groups in the electoral process and increases the credibility of their work check mark check mark check mark
Protects, advances, and defends the right to vote check mark check mark check mark
Works to ensure the right of access the ballot check mark check mark check mark
Systematically collects data and publicly reports on adherence to election law during absentee voting, in-person voting, and vote tabulation check mark
Provides an impartial assessment of the electoral process – analyzing its strengths and weaknesses check mark
Provides a partial assessment of the electoral process check-mark.svg
Provides public recommendations on ways to improve the election process check mark
Places observers inside polling locations check mark check mark
Monitors outside polling locations and has internal reporting systems for incidences of voter suppression check mark
Follows a strict code of conduct holding observers accountable check mark
Uses observation findings to advance the candidate, party, or ballot initiative interests check mark
Intervenes at the polls and calls state election management offices when there are clear breaches in electoral law or voters are being prevented from accessing the ballot check mark check mark

Download table (PDF) »

How Can I Become a Nonpartisan Election Observer?

This year, The Carter Center is supporting nonpartisan coalitions of citizens from across the political spectrum in Arizona and Michigan so that they can observe and report on the efficacy of their local election practices. Participating will give you a front-row seat to how elections are run and teach you about the ways we can improve election processes. If you are interested in learning more, please sign up to receive updates on our nonpartisan observation work in the U.S.