NCSBE wants to restrict poll watchers in 2022 election

FILE - Early voters line up to cast their ballots inside the South Regional Library polling location in Durham, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. 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 on Tuesday, Au. 16, 2022, to prevent partisan interference in the November general election. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

RALEIGH — An attempt by the N.C. State Board of Elections (NCSBE) to restrict the movement of partisan poll watchers ahead of the Nov. 8, 2022 general election will go to the state’s Rules Review Commission (RRC) for approval.

During the NCSBE’s meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 17, the board voted approve temporary rules relating to what they called “Conduct of precinct officials and election observers at voting sites.”

The state elections board said that after the state’s May 17 primary, dozens of county elections directors shared their recent experiences with election observers, who are appointed by political parties to watch the voting process from inside polling places.

Some county elections officials reported instances in which the partisan observers “Were disruptive to the orderly conduct of voting” and said some of the observers questioned poll workers carrying out their duties, repeatedly came in and out of the voting enclosure, talked to voters in the voting enclosure. The NCSBE also said they were told of one incident in which the observer had gotten into a confrontation with a voter.

The NCSBE, which is majority Democratic, outlined two changes it is seeking: the tasks and duties of precinct officials at voting places and who may serve as election observers.

The first temporary rule would add to the list of prohibited conduct for precinct officials that forbids them from tampering with voting equipment or expressing their political views while serving as an official.

The rule would prohibit intentionally interfering with, delaying, or preventing a voter from casting a ballot, failing to attend trainings required by the county board of elections, failing to follow lawful instructions of the county board, county board staff, chief judge, judges, or one-stop site manager, and intentionally providing inaccurate information about the administration of the election, among a list of 12 total proposed changes.

In addition, the second proposed change regarding election observers would add several definitions to their code of conduct and tighten the pool from which each county’s party officers can place observers in precincts.

Under the proposed change, the list of precinct-specific observers cannot be amended five days before the election and prohibits observers from standing close to a “tabulator, laptop, pollbook or other voting document” where they could view marked ballots or confidential voter information.

“We have no indication that these sorts of behaviors are routine in every county, and we have every reason to believe that most partisan observers are conducting themselves with dignity and are following the directions of county boards and chief judges,” said Paul Cox, State Board Associate General Counsel. “But, of course, 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.”

National and state Republicans objected to the changes.

In a letter, Republican Party officials argued that the state board failed to establish that it has authority to adopt the rule because it delayed the public comment period and therefore went around state statutes regarding rules changes.

Cox said the board pursued the temporary measure to ensure the revisions are approved before in-person early voting begins Oct. 20.

Republicans also said there was no “practical need” to adopt the rules citing that that were are no new state or federal laws for which the NCSBE has been authorized to adopt rules and that the board failed to establish that the rule is necessary to become effective immediately to preserve the integrity of upcoming elections.

“The state board has failed to established that this rule is necessary to become effective immediately to preserve the integrity of upcoming elections in North Carolina. The elections to which they refer were conducted under the rules as they currently exist. It is contradictory for the State Board to tout its election process and simultaneously claim that ambiguous temporary rules must be immediately enacted to “protect” the state’s elections. Furthermore, the Proposed Temporary Rule does not advance the integrity of the election process; rather, they restrict the ability of North Carolina voters to observe the election process,” the Republican officials said.

The RRC is expected to take up the matter at a special meeting on Aug. 25 in Raleigh.

“The North Carolina State Board of Elections has a demonstrated pattern of trying to change and circumvent election rules at the last minute — this is no different. Republicans believe that North Carolinians deserve transparency, accountability, and consistency in how their elections are administered,” RNC spokeswoman Taylor Mazock told North State Journal. “The RNC and NCGOP will continue fighting to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat in North Carolina and nationwide.”

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Matt Mercer is the editor in chief of North State Journal