NC commission rejects restrictions on poll watchers
North Carolina's Rules Review Commission has rejected two temporary rule changes recommended last week by the state Board of Elections that would have tightened restrictions for partisan poll watchers in the November elections.
The decision follows a unanimous elections board vote to more clearly outline the code of conduct for party-appointed election observers in response to more than a dozen reported conduct violations during the state's May primaries.
The proposed rules would prohibit poll watchers from standing too close to voting machines or pollbooks where they could view marked ballots or confidential voter information. Elections officials would have the authority to remove observers who try to enter restricted areas, interact with voters or disrupt election proceedings.
Appointed by political parties as their eyes and ears inside voting facilities, poll watchers are permitted by state law to take notes from designated areas and report concerns to a precinct manager.
Though the elections board approved tightening restrictions on poll watchers with bipartisan support on Aug. 16, the decision required final approval from the rules commission — a 10-member panel appointed by the Republican-controlled state legislature.
The commission rejected the board's proposal Thursday, arguing in its staff opinion that the rules were “not reasonably necessary” and “ambiguous and unclear,” legal counsel William Peaslee wrote.
Commission Chair Jeanette Doran did not respond to calls seeking further explanation of the commission's reasoning.
The decision comes as North Carolina is preparing to vote this fall in several tight races, including a high-profile U.S. Senate contest, two state supreme court races and several critical state legislative elections that will determine whether Republicans gain the few seats they need to nullify the Democratic governor's veto.
Elections board spokesperson Patrick Gannon said the board believes these rule changes are necessary to “provide better guidance immediately to poll workers and partisan observers” and “protect the integrity of the voting process.” The board has not yet decided on its next steps, Gannon said but may consider modifying and resubmitting the rules to the commission or appealing the decision in court.
The Rules Review Commission is a panel little known outside of state government circles. Commissioners decide whether to approve or reject temporary or permanent agency rules — details that lawmakers have delegated to government departments.
Approval can be based on whether the rules are clear and unambiguous and whether the state agency proposing them has the authority to carry them out.
A 2020 lawsuit filed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper challenges the commission’s composition, saying he has no meaningful control over the panel, which undermines the executive branch’s authority to establish policy. The governor believes he should be able to appoint a majority of its members. A hearing in the lawsuit is set for this fall.
At the time the lawsuit was filed, the commission had blocked roughly 200 rules from taking effect in the previous two years, according to Cooper’s attorneys.
The Republican National Committee and the North Carolina Republican Party wrote a letter to the commission earlier this week arguing that the proposed rules “do not ensure the integrity of the election process” and instead “restrict the ability of North Carolina voters to observe and report election fraud.”
Former President Donald Trump’s debunked claims that the 2020 presidential election results were fraudulent have prompted thousands of his supporters to scrutinize elections operations nationwide.
A state board survey of county elections directors in late May found violations in 15 North Carolina counties, where officials observed poll watchers harassing voters and attempting to enter restricted areas to view confidential voting records.
Gannon said the issues identified in the survey “were not limited to any particular political party’s observers” but demonstrated a need for tighter rules statewide.
The elections board had pushed for temporary rule changes this election cycle with the hope that the commission would approve them before in-person early voting begins on Oct. 20, said Paul Cox, associate legal counsel to the state board.
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 at twitter.com/H_Schoenbaum.