Throughout her life, Anita Shelton has served in several capacities as a political activist. She has served on the D.C. Democratic State Committee representing Ward 1, worked on campaigns and presently serves as the president of DC Women in Politics, an organization with the mission of promoting females as elected officials in the District.
However, being a poll watcher for campaigns has been a role she relishes, saying it remains one of the most rewarding experiences she has had.
“I have served as a poll watcher for many years, going back to the Marion Barry campaigns and most recently with Dionne Bussey-Reeder’s bid for the D.C. Council at-large seat in 2018,” she said. “It has been an experience I have found to be enriching and exciting.”
In the District, the law allows a campaign to petition the D.C. Board of Elections for a certain number of poll watchers in each polling place. District law mandates poll watchers must be approved by the board and the leader of the poll place in order to conduct their activities.
Poll watchers are presently active in the District as the early voting centers process ballots for the Nov. 3 general election. They can be seen at various centers throughout the District representing their candidate’s interests by seeing that the election laws, rules and regulations are being followed by the opposition. Poll watchers become the “eyes and ears” of the candidate they volunteer or work for, Shelton said, and can provide valuable information on voting trends to the campaign.
“Poll watchers make sure certain activities such as the taking down of signs doesn’t happen and monitoring who has come to the polls to vote,” she said. “It is the poll watchers who set the tone for the campaign on the ground. For example, it is the poll watcher who will tell campaign leaders if more signs or literature at a precinct are needed.”
Charles Wilson, the chair of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, said his party recognizes the importance of poll watchers.
“As a party, we want to make sure voters are protected when they go to the polls and we want to support Democratic candidates,” Wilson said. “We don’t recruit poll watchers but we send out information to party activists and to others who are interested doing that by giving them the contacts for the campaigns.”
Both Shelton and Wilson know about poll watching activities over the years in jurisdictions outside of the District, particularly in the South. They said they are aware poll watchers for mainly Republican campaigns have been hired to intimidate voters, especially those of color, from voting as well as President Trump encouraging his followers to monitor election activity in Democratic strongholds.
However, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine said recently intimidating poll watching has no place in the District.
“It is unlawful to threaten, intimidate or coerce District residents who choose to vote by mail, or in-person,” the attorney general said in a statement. “Now more than ever, we urge District residents to be vigilant and report any type of unauthorized poll monitoring or voter intimidation.”
Shelton said voter intimidation tactics like those in the South and other places doesn’t occur in the District but says there can be tension among campaigns that can become racial.
“If there is a close race between a Black candidate and a white candidate it can become adversarial,” she said. “People may lose their tempers and they may have to be reported to the board of elections for their conduct.”