RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's State Board of Elections will not fight a recent decision by the state rules panel blocking its proposed restrictions on party-appointed poll watchers this fall. But the board pledged Friday to do all it can to help county elections officials maintain a safe and orderly voting environment and to deter any voter intimidation.
The state's Rules Review Commission — a 10-member panel appointed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly — shot down two temporary rule changes last week that would have more clearly outlined the code of conduct for partisan election observers. The elections board said more than a dozen reported conduct violations during the May primaries prompted the proposed changes.
Comprised of three Democrats and two Republicans, the board had unanimously approved the temporary rule changes — one prohibiting poll watchers from standing too close to voting machines or pollbooks where they could view marked ballots, and another granting elections officials the authority to remove disruptive observers who try to enter restricted areas or harass voters.
Although the state elections board could have appealed the commission's decision in court or resubmitted a revised proposal, Chairman Damon Circosta said Friday it will instead offer guidance to county boards of elections and county poll workers to ensure they understand their authority.
Seventy days out from Election Day in a narrowly divided state, Circosta said the board does not “have the luxury of time to go back and forth with the commission or the courts to ensure that our reasonable rules are put in place before voting begins.”
“The Rules Review Commission lacks the expertise and the authority to determine how to best maintain order at the polls,” Circosta said. “It is our duty to the voting public to protect their right to vote, and it will be protected."
The board's decision comes as North Carolina is gearing up for several tight races, including a high-profile U.S. Senate contest, two state supreme court races and several crucial state legislative elections that will determine whether Republicans gain the few seats they need to override the Democratic governor's veto.
State law allows political parties to appoint precinct-specific and at-large poll watchers to monitor election proceedings from designated areas inside the voting facility on Election Day and during one-stop early voting. Observers can report concerns to a precinct manager but are prohibited from interacting with voters, distributing information or interfering with the duties of poll workers.
North Carolina Republicans, including some with close ties to former President Donald Trump, have been leaders in opposing the proposed rule changes since July, arguing that tighter restrictions for poll watchers could undermine the integrity of elections in a crucial swing state. The Republican National Committee and the North Carolina Republican Party also wrote to the rules commission urging it to reject the changes.
Trump’s debunked claims that the 2020 presidential election results were fraudulent have prompted thousands of his supporters to scrutinize elections operations nationwide, popularizing the poll-watching practice and leading several states to reevaluate their existing rules.
Paul Cox, associate legal counsel to the elections board, said the state's existing guidelines for election observers “are not models of clarity,” which had motivated the board's bipartisan collaboration.
Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow her on Twitter @H_Schoenbaum.