NC elections board seeks rule changes to reduce conflicts with observers

Proposed rule changes empower chief precinct judges to eject election observers who interfere with the voting and vote-counting process.

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Paul Specht
, WRAL state government reporter

During the state’s primary elections a few months ago, election observers posed a problem to voters in Davidson County.

There to monitor that votes were entered and tabulated properly, these private citizens hovered or moved awkwardly through polling places in an effort to make sure election workers were doing their jobs correctly.

“There were several that weren't aware of where they could and could not be in the polling place,” Andrew Richards, Davidson County’s director, recently told the state elections board. “While most were perfectly fine, several demanded to be behind the machines to watch people vote. When told they could not be behind the voting equipment several became argumentative.”

Richards added: “Clearer rules rather than just legal language is needed.”

Election officials around North Carolina are reporting similar instances, including heated confrontations between voters, observers and election officials.

In response, North Carolina’s state election board is proposing temporary rule changes for election observers. It’s an attempt to reduce confusion over existing laws and prevent interference that some counties reported when conducting the May primaries.

Election observers are people often appointed by political parties who are allowed to monitor the voting process from inside the voting facility. They’re allowed to walk in designated areas to watch, take notes, and report any concerns to the precinct’s chief judge or one-stop manager.

Some directors said they’ve welcomed more observers in the most recent elections, when the process was under heightened scrutiny and some politicians cast doubt on the results. Some Republicans are echoing the false conspiracy theory that ballot-counting machines were manipulated to change vote tallies in favor of President Joe Biden. The idea has prompted North Carolina politicians to demand access to voting equipment, which they’re not entitled to under the law.

Unlike poll workers, election observers don’t receive any training from county elections boards on how to perform their duties. And county officials recently reported that many election observers who participated in the May primary had inaccurate impressions of how closely they stand to voting machines.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections is expected to vote Tuesday on proposals that more clearly spell out the powers of precinct officials and rules for election observers. In a public comment session Thursday, a handful of critics worried that the changes would be confusing, unnecessary or applied unfairly.

But some of the proposals come in direct response to situations detailed by county elections directors in a recent survey conducted by the state elections board.

State law already forbids election observers from standing where they can see how voters marked their ballots. A proposed change would prohibit observers from positioning themselves “close to a tabulator, laptop, pollbook, or other voting document that they are able to view confidential voter information or the contents of marked ballots.”

Anne Risku, the elections director in Wayne County, told the state elections board that she had to eject an observer for “positioning herself between a voter and the tabulator,” the survey shows.

State law allows observers to obtain lists of voters who have voted in their precinct at designated time intervals. In Wayne County’s case, an observer wanted to be close to the tabulator when a voter inserted his ballot so that she could see how many people had voted that day, Risku told WRAL. But the observer was so close to the voter that he had to flip his ballot over so the observer couldn’t see it.

“So the chief judge [of the precinct] asked the observer to back away so that the voter could insert the ballot with privacy. And instead of adhering to her instructions, she got closer, and louder” and said she had a right to be there, Risku recalled. “So it just became a really awkward situation.”

Several observers got too close to voting equipment, county elections board directors reported.

Since the 2020 election, some conspiracy theorists have falsely claimed that North Carolina’s voting machines could be hacked to manipulate vote counts. In Surry County, threats related to this theory prompted the elections director to seek more security for her staff.

In New Hanover County, director Rae Hunter-Havens reported that some observers “tried to participate in the closing of the voting equipment” at the end of the voting day. Hunter-Havens wrote to the state board that “it would improve this process if the guidance regarding observers/witnesses clearly states what is prohibited during the opening and closing process.”

Many of the requests asked the board to address what they view as holes in state law.

For instance, another proposal would clarify that election observers are forbidden from “distributing or posting any written material in the voting enclosure.” This comes after Rachel Boyce Raper, Orange County’s elections director, relayed to the board a disagreement she had with Democratic Party observers two years ago.

“In 2020, the Democratic Party observers attempted to hang signs with a number to call if voters had problems voting,” Raper wrote to the board. Raper asked the observers to remove the sign, since state law forbids election observers from wearing or distributing campaign material. But the law doesn’t specifically mention signs, so the observers thought it was allowed.

“It should be clear observers may not distribute ANY material (including hanging/holding a sign),” Raper wrote.

County elections directors alleged other infractions, too, such as observers speaking to voters or leaving and reentering the facility without asking permission from the chief judge.

Directors who spoke with WRAL described these rule violations as minor problems that only become problematic if the observers’ movements are so frequent that they become a distraction. Proposed rule changes clarify that a chief judge can eject an observer who repeatedly exits and reenters the facility or whose conduct is causing a disruption.

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