Canvasser Rights

“Solicitor Permits” are not required.

  • The Supreme Court of the United States has held that political and GOTV organizations conducting canvassing operations may not be required to obtain a “solicitor permit” or provide notice before engaging in these operations. Watchtower Bible and Tract Soc’y of N.Y. v. Vill. Of Stratton, 536 U.S. 150 (2002).
  • Along these same lines, municipalities should not be allowed to require canvassers to wait, submit photos, or have a criminal background check completed before engaging in canvassing operations.
  • Although the United States Supreme Court has not yet ruled upon this issue, lower federal courts in New Jersey and Ohio have ruled that canvassers may not be required to obtain “solicitor permits” even if the solicitation of money is involved. N.J. Envtl. Fed’n v. Wayne Twp., 310 F.Supp.2d 681 (D. N.J. 2004); Ohio Citizen Action v. City of Mentor-on-the-Lake, 272 F.Supp.2d 671 (N.D. Ohio 2003). Courts in Virginia are not obligated to follow these decisions but may consider them guidance.
  • It is advisable for organizations, as a courtesy, to notify local officials and police before beginning canvassing operations within a municipality. If possible, this notification should involve providing a copy of the organization’s non-profit status and a staff list, including vehicle information. Staff should also be advised to carry photo identification at all times when canvassing.
  • If any first-time voter does not present one of these forms of ID, he or she will not be allowed to fill-out an affirmation and vote a regular ballot but they will be allowed to vote a conditional (or provisional) ballot, which will be counted if voter eligibility is subsequently verified.

Hours permitted for canvassing.

  • The Supreme Court has ruled that municipalities may not restrict canvassing between 9:00am and 9:00pm seven days a week. City of Watseka v. Illinois Public Action Council, 479 U.S. 1048 (1987).

What to do if stopped by local police.

  • Local police officers may not be aware of the rights of canvassers.
  • If stopped by police, canvassers should politely explain to the officer the nature of their activities as well as their right to be there. If local authorities and/or police have been notified of the organization’s activities, canvassers should inform the officer of this fact and request that he or she contact their headquarters to verify the organization’s right to conduct canvassing operations there. It is important to remain polite and to not become argumentative.
  • If police insist that canvassers stop their activities or face a ticket or arrest, canvassers should stop immediately. Before leaving the scene, canvassers should try to obtain the name and/or badge number of the officer. Canvassers should inform their supervisor of this incident with the police as well as the officer’s name and/or badge number.

 

Prepared: October 14, 2009 by the Fair Elections Legal Network

If you have additional questions about canvassers’ rights, please contact the Fair Elections Legal Network at 202.331.0114 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . This Guide was prepared by FELN staff who are not licensed to practice law in Virginia. FELN intends that the information contained herein be used only as a general guide and not as a substitute for consultation with a licensed Virginia legal professional.