RALEIGH, NC (AP) — North Carolina’s board of elections will not address a recent ruling by the state’s rules commission blocking proposed restrictions on party-appointed poll watchers this fall. But the board pledged Friday to do everything it can to help county election officials maintain a safe and orderly election environment and prevent any voter intimidation.
The state’s Rules Revision Commission — a 10-member panel appointed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly — shot down two temporary rule changes last week that would have more clearly outlined the code of conduct for partisan election observers. The election board said more than a dozen reported violations of conduct during the May primary prompted the proposed changes.
Made up of three Democrats and two Republicans, the board had unanimously approved temporary rule changes — one prohibiting observers from standing too close to voting machines or ballots where they could see marked ballots, and another giving election officials the power to they remove nuisance observers who try to enter restricted areas or harass voters.
Although the state board of elections could have appealed the commission’s decision in court or resubmitted a revised proposal, Chairman Damon Circosta said Friday he would instead offer guidance to county boards of elections and workers at county polls to ensure they understand their authority.
Seventy days before Election Day in a closely divided state, Circosta said the board “doesn’t have the luxury of time to go back and forth with the commission or the courts to make sure our reasonable rules are implemented before from the start of voting”.
“The Rules Review Committee lacks the expertise and authority to determine how best to maintain order at the polls,” Circosta said. “It is our duty to the voting public to protect their right to vote and that will be protected.”
The board’s decision comes as North Carolina prepares for several tight races, including a high-profile U.S. Senate contest, two high court races and several crucial state legislative elections that will determine whether Republicans win the few seats needed to overcome the governor’s Democratic veto.
State law allows political parties to appoint precinct specialists and general poll observers to monitor election proceedings from designated precincts within the polling station on Election Day and during one-stop early voting. Observers can report concerns to a precinct manager, but are prohibited from interacting with voters, distributing information, or interfering with the duties of poll workers.
North Carolina Republicans, including some with close ties to former President Donald Trump, have been leaders in opposing the proposed rule changes since July, arguing that tighter restrictions on poll watchers could undermine the integrity of elections in a critical state. The Republican National Committee and the North Carolina Republican Party also wrote to the rules committee urging it to reject the changes.
Trump’s debunked claims that the results of the 2020 presidential election were rigged have prompted thousands of his supporters to scrutinize election operations nationwide, popularizing the practice of poll-watching and leading many states to reevaluate their existing rules.
Paul Cox, associate general counsel at the board of elections, said the state’s existing guidelines for election observers “are not models of clarity,” which had galvanized the board’s bipartisan cooperation.
Hannah Schoenbaum is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative staff. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues. Follow her on Twitter @H_Schoenbaum.