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State elections board mulls proposed rules for poll observers

Early Voting Site in Wake County, on Thursday, Oct. 20, the first day of one-stop, in-person voting for the 2022 midterms.jpg
Rusty Jacobs
An early voting site in Wake County, on Thursday, Oct. 20, the first day of one-stop, in-person voting for the 2022 midterms.

Under recently enacted state law, poll observers appointed by political parties and unaffiliated candidates could play a more conspicuous role in North Carolina's 2024 elections. The state elections board is considering proposed rules aimed at further clarifying the authority precinct judges have to control the observers' conduct.

A sweeping elections bill passed this year by the Republican-majority North Carolina General Assembly over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto allows partisan poll observers to move about the voting area, listen to conversations between voters and precinct officials as long as the discussion pertains solely to elections administration. These poll observers can also go in and out of the site to communicate by telephone with party officers or campaign officials.

One of the temporary rules proposed for the primaries in March provides details on the kind of identification an appointed poll observer must wear, according to State Elections Board General Counsel Paul Cox.

"For example, you don't want a voter to go up to a representative of one of the parties who may be your opposing party if you're a voter and say, 'Hey, how do I cast my ballot' because that's not their role there," Cox explained.

Another rule would refine the due process for removing a disruptive poll observer and for appealing such a removal.

Advocates worry observers could intimidate voters

Voting rights advocates like Ann Webb, policy director with Common Cause North Carolina, have expressed concern that some observers, especially those inclined to mistrust elections administration, could interfere with an orderly process.

"We believe in transparent elections, we think it's good that there are poll observers," Webb recently told WUNC after an in-person public comment session at the State Board of Elections. "We also believe that voters have a right to vote without intimidation and without fear that they are being recorded or have someone look over their shoulder or made to feel uncomfortable in the polling place."

Proponents say observers boost confidence in the elections process

Transparency in the elections process is exactly what proponents of the new poll observer law say the legislation will accomplish, even though some of those people are aligned with a brand of skepticism spread by supporters of former Pres. Donald Trump who help promote his baseless claims the outcome of the 2020 election was illegitimate.

Jim Womack — president of the North Carolina Election Integrity Team, which is a branch of the Election Integrity Network, founded by conservative lawyer and Trump ally Cleta Mitchell — is a proponent of greater freedom for poll observers. He told WUNC in an August interview that the legislation "builds confidence across the country and that's why it's so important to have poll observers there representing all the parties that can assure themselves that no one party has controlled or manipulated the election."

Cleta Mitchell is the North Carolina-based attorney known for assisting Donald Trump in his effort to get Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" nearly 12,000 votes that could reverse the outcome of the 2020 presidential race in the pivotal swing state.

Under North Carolina state law, once adopted, temporary rules remain in effect for 270 days. The state elections board would have to adopt permanent rules for the 2024 general election and beyond following another public comment period.

In-person, early voting for the 2024 primaries starts on Feb. 15.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.