This election season, poll workers and poll observers will be present at each polling site in Orange County to serve the community.
Poll workers, or precinct election officials (PEOs), staff polling sites during the early voting period and on Election Day. They check in voters, provide ballots and assist voters if needed.
“Essentially, they are our frontline election workers,” Jason Roberts, a UNC professor of political science and member of the Orange County Board of Elections, said.
Roberts said PEOs conduct the “retail part” of the voting process by interacting with voters at polling sites.
PEOs are paid county workers comprised of assistants and judges. Judges make decisions regarding voter and ballot issues while assistants aid judges in their duties, Roberts said.
In North Carolina, after completing an application, PEOs serving as judges are recommended by the Democratic and Republican parties and appointed by their county's board of elections. Assistants also must fill out an application, but they may be recommended by parties or recruited by the local board of elections.
In contrast to PEOs, Jamie Cox, chairperson of the Orange County Board of Elections, said poll observers are volunteers who are appointed by the parties. They are not affiliated with the county board of elections.
Poll observers include inside observers and outside observers, each charged with different tasks and required to follow different guidelines regarding interactions with voters.
Inside observers are responsible for watching the voting process as it happens inside a precinct and ensuring transparency by identifying problems and reporting them to the chief judge or one-stop manager, Cox said.
Diane Pozefsky, a computer science professor at UNC, is an inside and outside poll observer this election season appointed by the Orange County Democratic Party.
She said observers serve as “extra eyes” at polling places, reporting issues such as voter intimidation, mechanical issues causing delays in voting and other challenges hindering the voting process.
Pozefsky said poll observers are important to the election process because they provide an additional check and balance in voting.
“There are times when people just need a little extra help to deal with the system and if I can help out just a bit and make it easier for one person to vote, I’ve done good,” Pozefsky said.
While permitted to observe and take notes, observers are prohibited from interacting with voters, including providing voter assistance, wearing or distributing campaign materials and seeing confidential voter information.
“They do not have the authority to do anything in the voting enclosure other than to observe,” Cox said.
Cox said outside observers are permitted to distribute campaign materials and sample ballots and interact directly with voters. They watch activities outside of the polling site and report issues.
He said they engage with voters and provide information about the candidates they are campaigning for or their preferred ballot initiatives, ensuring that voters are informed before entering the polling site.
He also said outside observers are prohibited from carrying out these activities within the buffer zone — an area extending 50 feet from the entrance of a polling site.
Inside and outside observers are prohibited from distracting or disrupting voters at any point during the voting process.
Pozefsky said disruptive behavior by observers can reduce people’s willingness to vote, which results in a decreased number of voices participating in democracy.
Owen Astrachan, a computer science professor at Duke University and an outside poll observer appointed by the Orange County Democratic Party, said if observers intimidate voters, the voters may warn other voters not to go to that specific polling site.
He also said inexperienced voters are especially vulnerable to being dissuaded from voting, which is a hindrance to democracy.
Despite reports of poll observers intimidating voters in some parts of the county, Roberts said the party organizations in Orange County have not been training observers to engage in acts of misconduct.
He also said the Orange County Board of Elections is not anticipating that voter intimidation will occur at polling sites in the county.
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