As the November election approaches, elections officials in Chatham County and across North Carolina are preparing to deal with the growing presence of partisan poll watchers, including some trained by a group with ties to 2020 election conspiracies.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections had unanimously approved temporary rule changes for poll observers and precinct officials in response to reports of conduct violations during the May primaries, but another state agency rejected the changes last week.
Chatham County’s Director of Elections Pandora Paschal told the News + Record that county poll workers haven’t faced direct threats yet, but the board of elections is being cautious that it could happen.
“There’s a lot of moving parts to this job,” Paschal said. “And then to have it threatened, and, I guess, I don’t know if it’s to cause us to be afraid and to distract us from doing what we’re supposed to be doing, but we can’t allow that to happen. We have to keep moving forward to make sure that we have free and fair elections.”
The Rules Review Commission, a 10-member commission appointed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, reviews and approves rules adopted by N.C. agencies. The RRC unanimously rejected the amendments proposed by the NCSBE on Thursday, arguing that the temporary rules were “unclear and ambiguous” and “not reasonably necessary.”
Among the opponents to the amendments was Jim Womack, chairperson of the Lee County Republican Party. Womack also serves as a president of an organization called North Carolina Election Integrity Team, which has been holding summits this summer to train and recruit poll observers.
Though Womack described NCEIT a nonpartisan organization at a training summit held last week in Sanford, he also said the group is directly affiliated with the Conservative Partnership Institute of Washington and is partnered with the N.C. GOP and Republican National Committee.
A blog post on right-wing group Voter Integrity Project’s website about NCEIT said the coalition’s purpose is “to develop both a long-term and a hyper-local presence that alerts others when rogue election boards try to undermine the democratic process.”
In a video interview on CPI’s website, Womack said he, Voter Integrity Project Founder Jay DeLancy and conservative activist groups drew inspiration for NCEIT from a guide published by the Election Integrity Network.
The Election Integrity Network was founded by Cleta Mitchell, an elections lawyer who helped former President Donald Trump to try to overturn the 2020 election, and, according to the Raleigh News & Observer, was present at the Rules Review Commission’s meeting to advocate for the agency to block the rule amendments. Mitchell and Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff who also spread false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election, are among CPI staff.
Now, with the midterms looming and as groups with connections to election deniers implement trainings of their own, bolstered with terminology like “election integrity,” conduct of poll observers remains a concern.
Womack told the News + Record that the group has around 650 members across more than 50 counties, and aims to expand representation in all 100 counties by October.
“We recruit people, and we advertise the work that we’re doing and invite people to get involved,” he said at the group’s summit last Wednesday in Sanford.
Around 25 people from across central N.C. attended the Aug. 24 summit at the Lee County GOP Headquarters; some expressed that they believed the results of the 2020 election were fraudulent — a claim that has failed in dozens of court challenges, before and after the results were certified. Other summit attendees decried the use of voting machines and early voting.
At the Rules Review Commission’s Thursday meeting, Womack said NCEIT has trained more than 1,000 people to serve as poll observers, the Raleigh News & Observer previously reported.
Womack led the poll observer training during the Aug. 24 summit; referencing N.C. General Statute 163-45, he went through a list of behaviors that are prohibited for poll observers and reiterated that the point of contact for observers should be with the polling site’s chief judge.
Poll observers are typically appointed by the chairperson of each political party in a county; they can designate two people to each voting site, the statutes states. The chairperson of each political party in the county can also designate 10 additional at-large observers and residents of the county to attend any voting place in that county.
In the case that an unaffiliated candidate is named on the ballot for an election, the candidate or candidate’s campaign manager can appoint two observers for each voting place. Observers themselves cannot be candidates and can take no oath of office.
According to the NCSBE, activities that poll observers are prohibited from doing based on the current statute include:
• Participating in electioneering at the voting site
• Impeding on the voting process or communicating or interfering with a voter casting a ballot
• Positioning oneself to see confidential voter information or contents of voted ballots
• Going behind registration, ballot or help desks
• Recording or photographing a voter without the consent of a chief judge or one-stop manager and the voter
During the NCEIT summit, Womack recommended that poll observers roam the voting facilities, even near a help desk if they believe they’ve identified an issue, and to “politely challenge” judges if they ask observers not to do so.
One attendee also asked if there was any linkage between a greeter who may be electioneering beyond the 50-foot buffer zone outside a voting site and a poll observer inside the voting enclosure. In response, Womack said he believed it would be “very helpful and useful” to coordinate between poll greeters and observers.
“I will tell you that if mischief is occurring outside, if someone’s breaking the rules outside of the voting enclosure, that greeter can be a great set of eyes to communicate by text message or whatever to the poll observer on the inside, who can then report it into the SEIRS application and document what’s going on,” he said.
SEIRS, or the Statewide Election Integrity Reporting System, was developed by Harnett County GOP Chairperson Jesse Burger, and is intended to be used by NCEIT members who work as poll observers when they see something they believe is election fraud. During a demonstration of the system, Burger pointed to sections of the incident report where users could upload videos or images.
The reports are sent to “war rooms” organized by NCEIT in each county, Womack said. The war rooms could include lawyers, political operatives or board of election members affiliated with the coalition, he said, though it remains unclear how the report will be handled going forward.
The NCSBE has its own Investigations Division to examine potential cases of election law violations. When warranted, the cases are then referred to prosecutors. The state board of elections cannot prosecute cases itself. Lists of referred cases are available on the Investigations Division tab of the NCSBE website.
According to an Aug. 17 press release on the temporary rule amendments, after the May 2022 primaries, county election officials reported instances of disruptive conduct on the part of partisan observers. The conduct ranged from talking to voters in the voting enclosure and repeatedly entering and leaving the polling place to following poll workers to their cars and asking to take photos of voter forms containing confidential information.
In July 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice also launched a task force to address a rise in threats against election workers.
“We have no indication that these sorts of behaviors are routine in every county, and we have every reason to believe that most partisan observers are conducting themselves with dignity and are following the directions of county boards and chief judges,” said Paul Cox, state board associate general counsel, in the NCSBE press release. “But, of course, we want to avoid any disruptive issues going forward, especially given how these incidents seem to have recently surfaced in significant enough numbers to cause our county directors concern.”
Many of the rule amendments proposed by the NCSBE included clarifying or adding prohibited activities for precinct officials and observers. Precinct officials would not be allowed to permit unauthorized access to voting equipment or facilities, provide inaccurate information about the election process or provide confidential information on voters, voting equipment or voting facilities to non-election officials. Prohibited behaviors for poll observers included distributing or posting written material in the voting enclosure and using doors meant for one-stop workers or precinct officials, unless authorized by a chief judge.
Martha Kropf is a professor of political science and public administration at UNC-Charlotte whose research focuses include election administration and political participation. She said having sincere election observers isn’t a bad thing; it’s when conduct slides into intimidation and disruption that it becomes a problem and a worry among election officials and voters.
Kropf said she sees two distinct possibilities if people who are election deniers are inclined to become poll observers.
“One, it could be a good experience for people who are election deniers that they actually see there are procedures, they must be followed and they are followed. And at the polling place, things are far more regulated than they might think,” she said. “Or the other perspective could be that they’re really disruptive. And if they think they know what the law is, then they’re going to disrupt the rule of law in the polling place.”
In Chatham County, some poll workers have expressed safety concerns to election officials, Paschal said. One person has chosen not to work, afraid and concerned about security procedures, she said.
Beyond an increase in physical safety concerns, the increased use of technology and threat of COVID-19 have posed challenges in retaining election workers — the majority of whom are over the age of 60, according to the Pew Research Center.
“It’s hard enough to keep them as it is,” Paschal said.
Still, county officials are working to ensure polling sites are secure and workers are kept safe, she said.
Kropf said among the general public, and not just election deniers, there is a general misunderstanding of election procedures. She cited the myth that ballots have been taken from one state and imported to another to become part of election results.
“It’s just utter nonsense because every election is different,” she said. “Every state is different. Every county is different, and the ballots are different, and the manufacturers are different. We’ve been saying since the 2000 election — I’m sure somebody was saying it before — elections are hyper decentralized.”
Paschal also echoed this sentiment, saying the general public don’t often realize how involved a process elections are. In the past couple of weeks, the county BOE has had people ask questions about the certification of the 2020 presidential election or for information that isn’t public record, she said.
Her response has been to address their queries and to emphasize that processes including the board’s meetings, testing of voting equipment and the audit held the day after Election Day are open to the public.
Paschal encourages people to come to open meetings and engage with the BOE, and said it’s important to be as transparent as possible.
“Anything that you don’t understand, ask [and] get the information from the source,” Paschal said. “Don’t just assume things because that’s how disinformation gets out.”
Reporter Maydha Devarajan can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @maydhadevarajan.