NC Elections Board proposes more detailed rules for poll-observer conduct

By: - August 12, 2022 6:00 am

The state Board of Elections is considering tighter rules for partisan elections observers that outline what they can do at polling places.

The revised rules grew from a survey of local elections officials after the May primary.

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The proposed rules “are necessary to ensure election workers and voters are not interfered with and the voting process is not disrupted in any way,” state Board of Elections spokesman Patrick Gannon said in an email.  “State law specifically prohibits observers from electioneering at voting sites and from impeding the voting process or interfering with or communicating with voters. These proposed rules are designed to ensure observers comply with the law.”

Election observers aren’t supposed to talk to voters or elections workers, except for the chief judge. They sign up to work four-hour shifts. They are supposed to be in an area of the polling place where they can see and hear the interactions between poll workers and voters, but they aren’t allowed to enter a voting booth, try to look at ballots, or take pictures.

The new proposal says observers shouldn’t be close enough to documents to see confidential voter information or ballots, must stay in a designated area, and can’t use doors designated for precinct officials or one-stop workers. Observers who create a disruption by walking in and out of a polling place repeatedly during a four-hour shift could be removed by the chief judge.

Fifteen county elections officials reported in the survey that they had some problems with observers –  some identified as Republican observers – during the primary. Some of the violations were minor, such as an observer talking to a voter they knew. Others reported that observers tailed elections workers driving from polling places to elections headquarters, wanted to take pictures at polling sites, interfered with voters, and distracted poll workers.

Wayne County elections director Anne Risku said in the survey response that an observer was ejected when she tried to block a voter from inserting his ballot into a tabulator. Republican observers objected to curbside voting, even though they were able to observe it. They called it “ballot harvesting,” she wrote. One chief judge there doesn’t want to work during early voting anymore.

According to the survey, an observer got into an altercation with a voter in Alleghany County. Several observers in Davidson argued that they should be able to stand behind machines to watch people vote. Poll workers in Pasquotank were intimidated.

North Carolina does not offer standardized training for election observers, though some states do.

Most of the people who spoke at public hearings Thursday and on July 28 said the revised rules were unnecessary or too restrictive. Most of the speakers were conservative or Republicans involved in poll monitoring.

Conservative groups have been holding classes to train elections observers, a response to false assertions of widespread voter fraud.

Several speakers opposing the revised rules mentioned being trained by Cleta Mitchell, Jay DeLancy, and Jim Womack.

Mitchell is a lawyer who tried to help Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election. She was on the phone with  Trump when he told a Georgia official to find him enough votes to overturn that state’s presidential election results. Mitchell is schooling activists around the country on aggressive poll monitoring, the New York Times reported.

DeLancy has been looking for voter fraud in the state for at least a decade. Jim Womack, Lee County GOP chairman, has an organization that trains elections observers.

DeLancy said at the July hearing that the proposed rule is “a solution in search of a problem.”

Angela Hawkins, a Republican member of the Wake County Board of Elections, called the proposed rules “too restrictive and unnecessary.”

Jane Pinsky said at the July hearing that Common Cause supports the new rules because they’ve heard of voters being intimidated or confused. Observers should wear tags identifying themselves as observers and should stay in designated areas, she said.

“I as a voter would be terribly intimidated to have an observer walking around with a notebook watching me vote,” she said. “That’s not what I consider the process to be.”

The state Board of Elections is accepting written comments on the proposed rules until 5 p.m. today.

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Lynn Bonner
Lynn Bonner

Investigative Reporter Lynn Bonner covers the state legislature and politics, as well as elections, the state budget, public and mental health, safety net programs and issues of racial equality.