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State elections board to consider changing rules for partisan poll observers

Sharon M Leon/Flickr/CC

The North Carolina State Board of Elections is contemplating a change to the rules for partisan poll watchers after more than a dozen violations by mostly GOP-appointed precinct observers during the May primaries. The state board will hold a second public hearing on the proposed revision this Thursday.

State elections board staff proposed amending the rules following a recent survey of county elections directors. The survey results show that during the May primaries local elections officials in 15 North Carolina counties witnessed poll observers violate rules of conduct by — among other things — talking to and intimidating voters, frequently exiting and re-entering the voting area to make phone calls to their party headquarters, and trying to enter restricted areas where voting tabulations and data were being uploaded.

Under state law, each major party may appoint precinct-specific and at-large observers to monitor polling sites from a designated area on Election Day and during one-stop early voting. But there are restrictions on what those observers may do.

They may not converse with, or provide information to, voters. Observers may not interfere with poll workers. And observers may not try to position themselves to look at a precinct official's open laptop to gather confidential voter information. The proposed rule change addresses that exact behavior and other impermissible conduct.

Intensifying partisanship since the 2020 election and former President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the results based on lies about the outcome's legitimacy have forced state and local elections officials to pay more attention to poll watchers.

"It is something that we do have to monitor a little bit more closely than in previous years," said Andrew Richards, director of the Davidson County Board of Elections.

Richards said that in May his poll workers had to deal with partisan observers who insisted on trying to enter the voting enclosure where people were marking their ballots.

Most of the time, Richards said, observers comply when they are told they may not go into the voting area. But, he said, this year there was one Republican-appointed observer who was adamant that he could enter the ballot-marking area until he went outside, made a phone call to clarify the law, returned and then complied.

In a telephone interview, Richards said tension around elections has increased for civil servants like him who administer elections not just because of concerns over improper conduct by poll observers but also wariness about more hyper-partisanship among volunteer precinct officials.

To address that, the state elections board is also considering another rule change. This revision would add a list of prohibited conduct by precinct officials, such as tampering with voting equipment and making statements about personal political views while on duty.

In Catawba County, Board of Elections Director Amanda Duncan said there was one GOP-appointed observer who persistently talked to poll workers and voters this past May, though not about anything political. Duncan said that, initially, the observer would not heed instructions from the precinct's chief judge to cease the improper interactions.

"I did call the Republican chair and he spoke to the individual and after that happened it seemed to clear up the issues that we had," Duncan said.

The proposed rule changes have met with staunch opposition from partisan actors on the right.

"This is really for the purpose of curbing the enthusiastic interest that many citizens of North Carolina have expressed in making sure that the elections conducted in our state are transparent and that they are following the law," said Cleta Mitchell at the first public hearing about the proposed rule changes, held in July.

Mitchell is a Pinehurst resident, Donald Trump acolyte, and perpetrator of the lie that Trump actually won the 2020 presidential contest. A conservative attorney, Mitchell was on a telephone call with Trump after the 2020 election when the former president urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find enough votes to change the election outcome in that swing state, as first reported by The Washington Post.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC. Rusty previously worked at WUNC as a reporter and substitute host from 2001 until 2007 and now returns after a nine-year absence during which he went to law school at Carolina and then worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Wake County.