by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
The North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) is seeking to make elections less transparent by limiting the number of election observers. The proposed rule change is in violation of state law and threatens to make our elections less secure.
Election observers are an important part of maintaining the security of our elections. They are the eyes and ears of the political parties, watching over the election process in early voting sites and precinct polling places for deviations from proper election procedures or violations of the law.
Recognizing the importance of election observers, current election regulations allow for two “precinct-specific observers from each political party” and one at-large observer at a time and that “All observers, whether precinct-specific or at-large, may be relieved after serving no less than four hours.” So, parties may place a new set of two or three observers every four hours, or up to six or eight observers per day at early voting or election day polling sites.
(As seen below, state law allows parties to post observers at “each voting place.” That includes early voting sites as well as precinct polling places.)
That flexibility is important. Unlike poll workers, election observers are not paid, meaning that it can be difficult for parties to get people willing and able to volunteer for 10 to 13 hours a day. Party chairs need to have the ability to rotate observers throughout the day. I communicated with several chairs from both major parties, and most of them placed more than two observers per day in some voting places, especially at early voting locations.
For that reason, it is dismaying that the SBE is seeking to change the maximum number of voting place-specific observers from two every four hours to two per day (page 10 of 26):
All observers, whether precinct-specific or at-large, may be relieved after serving no less than four hours. hours; however, the total number of observers from each party per day cannot exceed three total observers: two precinct-specific observers and one county or State at-large observer.
While the SBE claims that the proposed limit on observers is just part of a set of changes that “would provide clarity in election processes for county boards of elections, as well as political parties,” it would make our elections less transparent.
The SBE’s proposed rules change for election observers is not only a shift in policy towards less transparency, but it is also contrary to state law.
Regulations promulgated by the SBE and other executive agencies are based either on laws passed by the General Assembly or authority granted by the General Assembly. In the case of election observers, the number of observers is set by statute (General Statutes § 163-45(a)):
The chair of each political party in the county shall have the right to designate two observers to attend each voting place at each primary and election and such observers may, at the option of the designating party chair, be relieved during the day of the primary or election after serving no less than four hours and provided the list required by this section to be filed by each chair contains the names of all persons authorized to represent such chair’s political party. … Not more than two observers from the same political party shall be permitted in the voting enclosure at any time, except that in addition one of the at-large observers from each party may also be in the voting enclosure.
A plain and logical reading of the statute shows that the SBE’s attempt to restrict the number of local election observers to two per day is contrary to state law. The first sentence of the section states that each county party chair has the right to “designate two observers” and that those observers may “be relieved during the day of the primary or election after serving no less than four hours.” If the law gives party leaders the right to replace two observers after four hours, and polls are open for more than four hours per day, how could the total number of observers per day only be two?
Since the polls are open on election day for thirteen hours, the upper limit of local party observers per voting location on election day is eight (although the last two observers would only be able to serve during the last hour of voting and be on hand to observe closing procedures). This is simple math.
Again, the statute states “not more than two observers from the same political party shall be permitted in the voting enclosure at any time.” That clause would not be necessary if the total number of local observers per day were two. Its presence in the statute is another indication that the intent behind that law is to allow more than two voting place–specific observers per day.
The good news is that we citizens can make our voices heard about the proposal to limit election observers and other proposed rule changes by the SBE (such as their proposal to redesignate all large political signs as billboards).
Here is what you can do.
First, you can submit a public comment. There are three methods available:
If you wish to speak to the state board live, you can speak at the SBE rules hearing scheduled for Thursday, May 6, at 1:00 pm. To do so, follow these instructions:
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar. Please use the Panelist code provided in the confirmation email if you plan to make an oral comment during the public hearing.
If the SBE persists with the proposed changes after the hearing, the next stop is the Rules Review Commission (RRC). After extensive public comments at both the SBE and RRC hearings last year, the RRC shot down the SBE’s attempt to broaden the SBE Executive Director’s emergency powers beyond their legal limits.
The people who help protect our elections now need protection from the NC State Board of Elections. North Carolina citizens can help provide that protection.