RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — After receiving more than a dozen reports of conduct violations by party-appointed poll watchers during the May primaries in North Carolina, the state elections board tightened regulations for precinct observers Tuesday to prevent partisan interference in the November general election.
The board unanimously voted to approve temporary rules for the upcoming election that more clearly outline the code of conduct for partisan observers, prohibiting them from standing close to a “tabulator, laptop, pollbook or other voting document” where they could view marked ballots or confidential voter information.
The revisions heighten scrutiny for observers and poll workers alike, adding a list of prohibited conduct for precinct officials that forbids them from tampering with voting equipment or expressing their political views on the job.
While poll watching has been an element of electoral transparency since the 1800s, the practice grew in prominence in the 2020 election cycle due to former President Donald Trump’s unfounded allegations of voter fraud. Trump’s debunked claim that the 2020 presidential election results were fraudulent has motivated thousands of his supporters to scrutinize elections operations nationwide, intensifying concerns of voter intimidation.
A survey of county elections directors in late May found violations in 15 North Carolina counties, where officials observed poll watchers harassing voters and attempting to enter restricted areas to view confidential voting records.
“While most were perfectly fine, several demanded to be behind the machines to watch people vote,” Davidson County Elections Director Andrew Richards said. “When told they could not be behind the voting equipment, several became argumentative.”
State law allows political parties to appoint precinct-specific and at-large poll watchers to monitor election proceedings from designated areas inside the voting facility on Election Day and during one-stop early voting. These observers can report concerns to a precinct manager but are prohibited from interacting with voters, disseminating information or interfering with the duties of poll workers.
North Carolina Republicans, including some with close ties to Trump, have argued further restrictions for poll watchers could undermine the integrity of elections in a crucial swing state.
Conservative attorney Cleta Mitchell, who was on a phone call with Trump in January when he pressured Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to “find” enough votes to overturn that state’s presidential election results, was among those who advocated against the rule change during the first of two public hearings July 28.
“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 Mitchell, a Pinehurst resident.
The state board opted to pursue a temporary rule change to ensure the revisions are approved before in-person early voting begins Oct. 20, said Paul Cox, associate legal counsel to the board.
“The existing rules just, quite frankly, are not models of clarity,” Cox said. “We want to avoid any disruptive issues going forward, especially given how these incidents seem to have recently surfaced in significant enough numbers to cause our county directors concern.”
The state’s Rules Review Commission will now review the changes. If approved, they will be in effect for 270 days, Cox said.
Board Chair Damon Circosta said he will ask political parties and election workers to complete another survey in late November so the board can evaluate the need for a permanent rule change.
Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/H_Schoenbaum.
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