On Aug. 25, the North Carolina Rules Review Commission struck down a North Carolina State Board of Elections request to place additional restrictions on poll observers.
This was in response to reports of improper conduct by some observers at the polls during the 2022 primary elections.
The NCSBE voted unanimously on Aug. 16 to approve restrictions on the conduct of precinct officials and poll observers at voting locations. This vote was bipartisan, with three Democrats and two Republicans on the Board supporting the limitations.
The Board’s restrictions would have prevented poll observers from positioning themselves close to a tabulator, laptop, pollbook or other document that could allow them to view confidential voter information, such as a voter’s Social Security number, driver’s license number or date of birth.
The modified rules also would have required the county director of elections to provide a list of precinct observers to the chief judge of each precinct before Election Day. In addition, they would have removed a clause forbidding close family members of a precinct official from serving as poll observers.
Though the NCSBE proposed the recommendations, the N.C. Rules Review Commission (RRC) rejected them, calling them “ambiguous and unclear” and “not reasonably necessary.”
Whereas poll observers are appointed by political parties, precinct officials or poll workers are ultimately appointed by the NCSBE, according to Jamie Cox, chairperson of the Orange County Board of Elections.
The broader context
A survey following the May primary elections found that poll observers violated proper conduct in dozens of counties in North Carolina.
The alleged infractions take place at a time of increased scrutiny of election officials, spurred by former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him due to widespread voter fraud.
Since Trump’s defeat, many election officials across the country have endured threats of violence.
Steven Greene, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said improper conduct by poll observers had not been an issue in the state until recently.
“The big story is that you have had the Republican Party systematically working to undermine confidence in the integrity of elections for almost two years now,” he said. “And this is part of that.”
Jamie Cox said that he has been on the board since 2011 and has never heard of any instances of election fraud at the polls in Orange County.
“It is rare enough that I’m confident in saying that it is virtually nonexistent,” he said.
Rules Review Commission
The RRC is a state executive agency whose purpose is to review and approve rules that state agencies have adopted.
Members of the commission are appointed by the N.C. General Assembly, which is currently controlled by Republicans.
Greene, who said he has been following North Carolina politics closely for twenty years, said he had never heard of the RRC until they decided to reject the NCSBE’s guidelines.
He added that the N.C. GOP wrote a letter to the RRC the previous day, which urged the RRC to disregard the NCSBE’s proposed rules.
“It certainly seems, on the surface, it’s not unfair to read this as troublingly partisan,” Greene said.
Bobbie Richardson, chairperson of the N.C. Democratic Party, said in a written statement that the RRC’s claim that the rules are “not reasonably necessary” indicates they do not understand the reality on the ground.
She added some local officials have requested bulletproof glass for their offices.
“Ultimately, it demonstrates that Republicans are less concerned with order and voter safety than they are with the effect that prohibiting these underhanded tactics will have on Republican electoral prospects this November,” she said in an email.
N.C. Sen. Gladys A. Robinson (D-Guilford) said during the last general election, she witnessed one poll observer at N.C. A&T who was getting too close to students as they voted.
She said this was an invasion of privacy, and added that at some polling places where Black people voted in large numbers, there were many instances of poll observers violating the law.
“It’s another attempt at voter suppression, and we should not allow that in this state,” Robinson said.
Paul Cox, associate general counsel for the NCSBE, said in a statement that while the board believes that most observers have been conducting themselves appropriately, its rationale in promoting the stricter rules is to decrease the frequency of these instances.
He added that the NCSBE wants to avoid any disruptive issues going forward, especially because incidents seem to have surfaced in significant enough numbers to cause county directors concern.
In Orange County, Jamie Cox said although there have been isolated instances of poll observers engaging in unauthorized behavior, each of those cases was quickly handled by precinct officials.
Andy Jackson, director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation, said the current laws already protect people’s right to vote and ensure that all legal votes are counted.
He added that allowing officials to remove people who were not limiting anyone’s ability to vote would be an overreach of their authority.
“If that can’t be demonstrated, then you really shouldn’t be removing those people,” Jackson said.
The NCSBE’s response
On Friday, NCSBE Chairperson Damon Circosta released a statement in response to the RRC’s decision.
In the statement, he said while the NCSBE believes the RRC does not have the expertise or authority to determine how voting should be secured, the NCSBE needs to focus on the upcoming midterm elections.
“We do not have the luxury of time to go back and forth with the commission or the courts to ensure that our reasonable rules are put in place before voting begins,” Circosta said.
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