by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
I recently spoke to about two dozen people at Liberty First of Wayne County and stayed as they moved to the business portion of the meeting. They mainly talked about preparing to serve as election observers (known as poll watchers in some states). Under North Carolina law, observers are appointed by their parties to watch the voting process at early voting sites and election day precinct polling places and report any irregularities they find. They are an essential part of ensuring transparency in our elections.
The group’s leader emphasized that election observers are there to “observe and report” and that they should only speak to the chief judge at the voting site. They also went over some of the particularities of observing in Wayne County.
I heard a similar message about properly conducting election observation at a summit of the North Carolina Election Integrity Team (NCEIT, pronounced “insight”) last spring:
And, of course, the summit included election observer training. Participants learned how volunteers in the 2021 election in Virginia politely but firmly held elections officials accountable and how the “Virginia model” can be applied in North Carolina and elsewhere. Participants also practiced skits and various scenarios that observers have encountered, such as dealing with aggressive poll workers.
In a recent media release, the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) stated, “Party-appointed election observers play an important role in the elections process.” Their conduct towards observers does not reflect that statement, however.
Earlier this year, the SBE attempted to make several changes to regulations that would have limited the ability of observers to perform their duties. The changes were rejected by the Rules Review Commission at their August 25 meeting.
The SBE said in a media release that the proposed changes became necessary in light of information from “dozens” of local election officials who “shared their recent experiences with election observers.” However, that attempt was just the latest round in a series of SBE moves against observers.
In 2021, the SBE attempted to illegally limit the number of observers per day at early voting sites and election day polling places to two. North Carolina law sets the limit at two every four hours, which means six per day during most days of early voting and eight per day at polling places on election day. They gave up the attempt only after overwhelming public testimony against it, including the threat of lawsuits.
Incredibly, that was not the first time the SBE tried illegally limiting the number of election observers. They previously suppressed the number of observers during the 2020 election without going through the formality of changing the regulations. It took intervention from the Trump campaign to make them reverse course:
County election boards followed (SBE General Counsel Katelyn) Love’s policy until she received pushback from Heather Ford, an attorney hired by the Trump campaign. At one point, Ford called Love and “finally had to read the law aloud to Love in order to sway her.” She finally relented under that pressure and, on October 29, 2020, issued new guidance that followed the law on election observers, but which was too late for the early voting period.
No matter what happens during the 2022 election, there is little reason to believe that the SBE will stop its campaign to limit election observers.