by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
Should election officials have the power to ban uniformed police officers from voting in polling places?
That question was highlighted in the 2020 general election when an election official in Durham (because, of course, it was Durham) banned uniformed deputies from voting:
In Durham, a poll worker recently turned away two deputies who showed up to vote while in uniform at the Durham County Library polling location.
The situation only became public knowledge after former Durham Sheriff Mike Andrews posted on Facebook “two deputies were denied the right to vote in their uniform.”
That prompted some backtracking from Durham election officials and the officers were later able to vote. Durham Director of Elections Derek Bowens said that “no one was intentionally turned away” (except they were). He also stated that the ban was “erroneous” but “taken from the perspective of mitigating voter intimidation.”
The situation arose from a memo issued by the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) to county election boards that stated it was “not appropriate or permissible for law enforcement to be stationed at a voting place.” The memo went on to state:
The rationale given by the SBE for those restrictions is that some voters find police officers at the polls to be intimidating.
Near the end of that general prohibition of uniformed police officers from polling places, the SBE added an affirmation that police officers are “permitted” to vote while in uniform. Somehow the Durham elections official was not aware of the permission the state elections board granted for police officers to vote.
To rectify the problem demonstrated by the SBE memo and the incident in Durham, legislators are stepping up to affirm the right of police officers and other uniformed personnel to vote.
House Bill 807 (the “Uniformed Heroes Voting Act”) is sponsored by representatives Destin Hall (R-Caldwell), Allen McNeill (R-Moore, Randolph), Carson Smith (R-Columbus, Pender), and Charles W. Miller (R-Brunswick, New Hanover). As seen in the text of the bill, it is designed to make sure that election officials can never bar police officers or others in uniform from entering a polling place to vote:
No person seeking to vote may be refused entry into the voting place due to that person being a law enforcement officer, first responder, correctional officer, or member of the military and appearing in the uniform required by that person‘s employer. Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to allow denial of entry into the votingplace due to attire when such denial is otherwise prohibited by law.
Given that the SBE stated in its 2020 memo that uniformed police officers should be permitted to vote and that Durham election officials allowed the two deputies they have barred to eventually cast their ballots, is this bill really necessary?
This is the same state elections board that illegally limited the number of election observers at early voting sights, only to relent after a Trump campaign attorney read the law to the SBE’s general counsel Kaitlyn Love. Just months later, the board again tried to set state elections policy to illegally limit the number of election observers at polling places.
SBE and some county election officials already see uniformed police officers as agents of voter intimidation. It is not too much of a stretch to see them taking the stance that officers in a polling place for any reason is a form of voter suppression. What happened in Durham in 2020 was a warmup.
The Uniformed Heroes Voting Act would make clear to all election officials that uniformed polices officers will always be free to exercise their right to vote in North Carolina.