by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
After several years of seeking to restrict election observers, the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) has issued good guidance to county elections boards about observers. Election observers are appointed by their political parties to watch the voting process at early voting sites and election day precinct polling places and report any irregularities.
The guidance came from Numbered Memo 2022-14, issued on October 18. The SBE issues numbered memos to county boards to instruct them on election procedures.
Unlike statutes passed by the general assembly and regulations approved through the SBE and the Rules Review Commission, numbered memos do not carry the force of law. They often point to supporting laws or regulations, however.
The first good guidance is that members of the public (including observers) must be allowed to see the opening procedures at both election-day polling places and on the first day of one-stop (early) voting:
Members of the public, including party-appointed observers, are permitted to view certain procedures when the voting system is being prepared before the opening of the polls, both on the morning of the first day of one-stop early voting and on Election Day morning.
That guidance is incomplete, however. It does not tell county election boards to make the opening procedures of every day of one-stop voting open to the public. That is something that may have to be corrected through legislation.
The second good guidance from the SBE in the memo is that county boards should make absentee (early and mail) tabulator results tapes publicly available.
The one exception is for a physical copy of the results tapes, which we recommend to be posted at the precinct voting site upon the completion of the vote count on Election Day. It is a good practice to also post absentee tabulator results tapes for inspection at the county board office in a similar fashion. Any member of the public is permitted to photograph or video any posted results tapes—when the tapes are posted, the counting process is no longer ongoing. [emphasis added]
County boards tabulate one-stop ballots on the afternoon of election day and tabulate mail ballots starting five weeks before election day. Those tabulations are public. However, the tapes and their data cannot be made public until after polls close on election day.
Not all counties allow the public to view those tabulation tapes. In Wake County, for example, the tabulation tapes are not available for public viewing, and “the public is prevented from entering the building on election night.”
County election boards should follow the SBE’s advice and make one-stop and mail tabulation tapes publicly available on election night.