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Politics
Learn everything you need to know about voting in the upcoming election, including how to vote in person or through the mail as well as local candidates' positions on various issues and why they think you should vote for them.

FAQ: What Are NC Rules On Voting Observation And Voter Intimidation?

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Jodie Valade
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WFAE

With so many mail-in ballots being cast this year due to the coronavirus, there’s a good chance we won’t know the outcome of every contest on Election Day. In the first presidential debate of the 2020 election, President Donald Trump was asked whether he’d urge his supporters to remain calm if the results of the election aren’t immediately known.

"I'm urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that is what has to happen," Trup said. "I am urging them to do it.”

Don’t do that. It’s not legal in North Carolina.

Voter Intimidation Graphic
Office of Attorney General Josh Stein

The State Board of Elections says it is carefully balancing a right to free speech with potential voter intimidation acts this election. Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell wrote in a nine-page memo issued Oct. 9: “The First Amendment provides a high level of protection for campaign speech and other election- and voting-related speech. We must balance the right of every voter to enter the voting place free from intimidation within these First Amendment protections.”

In the memo, Bell also instructed election officials on response to attempts to intimidate or discourage voters: “Election officials must be prepared to respond immediately to behavior that disrupts or threatens to disrupt the peace and order of a polling site. If the behavior poses a threat to any person’s safety, the election official should immediately contact local law enforcement for assistance. The official should then contact the county elections office to report the incident, which in turn should be reported to the State Board of Elections office immediately.”

WFAE has compiled some of the most common questions concerning everything around in-person voting this year -- outside of the actual act of voting -- from observation to intimidation to buffer zones to police presence.

Can anyone just walk into a polling place to observe voters?

No. In North Carolina, each county has designated observers, who are appointed by political parties. Each party has the right to appoint two people per polling site. The list of observers must be submitted to the county board of elections at least five days before a person is scheduled to observe. They observe for at least four hours.

Observers must be registered to vote in the county -- unless you are one of the 100 state at-large observers, who must be registered in the state.

If you try to enter a polling place to just watch what is happening, you will be asked to leave or escorted out.

What do observers do?

Observers may observe and take notes. They cannot disrupt voters or election officials. They cannot even speak to voters, or stand close enough to see a ballot or registration information -- anything that should be confidential.

To reduce the transmission of the coronavirus, this year, observers are required to wear face masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines. Any observer who does not adhere to the mask rules or social distancing recommendations will be required to leave.

Other acts not permitted by observers:

  • Wearing or distributing campaign material;
  • Using any kind of electronic device to film or take photographs inside the voting enclosure;
  • Taking photos, videos or recording a voter without the consent of the voter and the chief judge;
  • Entering the voting booth area or attempting to view ballots;
  • Boarding a vehicle containing curbside voters; and
  • Providing voter assistance.

OK, so that’s inside the polling place. What about outside? Can I observe the site from outside?

Anyone can watch from outside the “buffer zone.

What is the buffer zone?

The buffer zone includes the area 50 feet from the entrance to the voting place. It is an area that is intended to allow voters to freely access the polling place without being harassed or intimidated. If you’ve voted in person before, you’ve probably seen signs for candidates and people handing out last-minute fliers just outside the buffer zone.

If a separate exit is used for the voting place, there is not an additional buffer zone from the exit door. There is only one buffer zone per site.

Can anyone outside the buffer zone wearing a “security” badge say they are monitoring voting?

No. Federal law prohibits anyone around the polling place from displaying badges, uniforms or credentials that “reasonable individuals” would interpret to mean that person is a law enforcement officer.

What happens if people outside the buffer zone try to prevent cars from parking at a polling place?

It is a crime to interfere with access to a polling site. Police can be called to enforce this rule.

Who is responsible for enforcing all this?

The chief judge at each voting location must ensure that voters have unimpeded access into the buffer zone and voting enclosure.

What does the chief judge do if there are problems?

The chief judge is instructed to immediately contact the county board of elections and/or law enforcement. Law enforcement is suggested if:

  • A situation begins to escalate beyond the ability to respond and control the situation;
  • There is concern for the safety of individuals or election officials.

What are the penalties for anyone found to violate any of these rules?

Penalties include prison time, a fine or both.

There are concerns that law enforcement might be asked to observe. Can that happen?

No. the State Board of Elections issued special guidance this year that says: “It is not appropriate or permissible for law enforcement to be stationed at a voting place.”

If a county board of elections must call in law enforcement to help with parking or traffic, those officers must be in plain clothes, according to the State Board of Elections guidance.

“County boards of elections must be mindful that some voters find a law enforcement presence at the polls intimidating,” the State Board of Elections wrote in a memo issued Oct. 9.