by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
There have been some complaints about several election reform bills being considered in the General Assembly, including a bill on election observers.
I recently noted how a bill in the General Assembly, House Bill 772, would help clarify what election observers can and cannot do in voting locations:
Despite the importance of election observers, the law on their appointment and role in elections is overly broad and not always clear. Regulations from the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) add more restrictions on their conduct but do nothing to clarify their rights or role in the election process. A bill moving through the General Assembly would provide that clarity…
The bill would refine the space between allowing an observer to “make such observation … as the observer may desire” and ensuring the observer “shall in no manner impede the voting process” in current law. For example, the bill would spell out that observers can “move freely around the voting enclosure” but must remain “5 feet or greater” from registration or ballot tables, tabulation machines during voting, and vehicle compartments during curbside voting.
It also would clarify that observers are “authorized to hear conversations between poll workers and voters” but reaffirm that they may not speak with voters…
Even if the bill were to pass, there would still be a need for some local application and interpretation. For example, observers would have free reign in some of the larger, more cavernous voting locations, such as gyms and church fellowship halls. In contrast, they would have to work with officials on acceptable procedures for moving about some of the smaller precinct polling places.
But not everyone is convinced that election observer reform is a good thing or that election observers already exist.
A recent opinion piece from WRAL includes this gem:
[General Assembly leaders] believe voting sites should be chaotic madhouses where so-called “observers” wander freely to intimidate elections officials and look over their shoulders as voters fill their ballots.
“So-called ‘observers?'” Why would the folks at WRAL use “so-called” for observers and put the word “observers” in scare quotes?
That was not a one-off thing. They put “observers” in scare quotes again later in the piece. It is as if they believe HB 772 would create some strange new beast by that name.
This may come as news to the folks at WRAL, but observers are not “so-called.” They are already enshrined by that name in law (G.S. § 163-45):
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… [emphasis added].
Those observers are already authorized to work in voting locations, and election officials are already required to “permit the observer to make such observation and take such notes as the observer may desire” as long as the observer does not “impede the voting process” or interfere with voters.
The problem, as I previously noted, is that the details of what observers can and cannot do are only broadly defined in law. The State Board of Elections has been overly restrictive in its interpretation of the law and has even illegally suppressed observers, which is why HB 772 is a good idea.
The rest of the WRAL piece is no better informed.
The supposed impetus for the WRAL piece was a letter from 32 of the state’s 500 county election board members, including the executive committee of the state election board association, to the General Assembly. The requests in the letter can mostly be boiled down to two things:
Of course, election officials, like any other officials or individuals, will usually oppose bills granting them less power to make their own rules without outside interference. That is no different than bankers opposing banking regulations or city counselors opposing limits on the ability of municipalities to commit hostile annexations. It is just them doing their jobs. They will also, naturally, seek more money. That is also just them doing their jobs.
Legislators should consider input from election officials when passing election reforms, just as they should consider input from bankers when passing banking laws or from sheriffs when passing laws that affect their work. But those inputs must be balanced with the need for reform. HB 772 addresses just such a need for election observer reform.