SBOE Moves to Restrict Observer Access to Polls

June 26, 2017 (Raleigh) — While Representatives Speciale, Boswell, Clampitt and Cleveland sponsored HB 697, a law that would grant specified rights to election observers, the State Board of Elections is quietly moving in the other direction, by pushing administrative code to make it easier for precinct Judges to throw observers out of the polls. Concerned citizens have until July 31 to render public comment. After that, the code enjoys the full force of the law, which will be hard to overturn. At the end of this post shows, we show you how to unscrew this mess.

We asked the SBOE’s official spokesperson, Patrick Gannon, about the changes, and he released this statement: “We’ve had many questions from our counties and recognized the need for rules so the law is applied consistently across the state.” We sympathize with the need for standardized rules, but would forcefully disagree with the details of the regressive rules being put forth.

Without election observers, this is how the public will be able to know if their elections are honest.


The SBOE buried their proposed observer restrictions on pages 14 & 15 of this public notice on a long list of election-related administrative changes to a variety of procedures, but the observer provisions concern us the most. The fact is that nothing changed from how observers could operate before the 2010 election, when the former SBOE Director, Gary Bartlett, distributed a new rule by executive memo, allowing an admirable set of rights for observers. Among them was a rule allowing observers to step outside the poling enclosure and make phone calls or text messages and then re-enter without being punished.  Mr. Bartlett began the memo, “Due to continuing advances in technology, it is necessary to address possible statutory violations due to the use of advanced electronic devices.” He said it applied to chief judges and election observers. Under the proposed rules change, an observer who steps out for any reason is never allowed to return. This is draconian.

After the 2012 elections, we heard from several VIP constituents who had been observers who were abused by chief judges. In response. we proposed a specified set of observer rights, which made it into early Senate drafts of the comprehensive voter ID law, HB 589.  Our language, reflected on page 27 of this Senate version read, “the observer shall be authorized to be present and move about the voting place prior to, during, and following the closing of the polls until the chief judge and judges have completed all of their duties. The observer shall be permitted to observe precinct officials checking voter registration from a position that allows an observer to clearly hear and understand voter responses.”

Rep. Michael Speciale (R-Beaufort, Craven, Pamlico)

Our language also put teeth into the law by allowing for the punishment of abusive judges. We reasoned that this works for both parties, especially when they are in the minority, but it created problems. Judges are hard enough to recruit, so we suggested amending out the offensive language. Instead, the entire question of observer rights was jettisoned from the final bill, and punted to a study committee. The law ordered, “the Joint  Legislative Elections Oversight Committee shall study a bill of rights for election observers to guarantee their right to help assist proper voting while ensuring proper protection for voters and recommend to the General Assembly any legislation it deems advisable” (see Sec 11.2 of page 24 of this ratified version of HB 589).

In a drive-by conversation, I recently asked that committee’s co-chair, Rep. David Lewis about the issue and he confirmed that the committee never studied the matter and the question of observer rights never went any further. With all the legal action shot at him, it’s understandable. They were too busy fighting alligators to worry about draining the swamp.

In the 2015 session, VIP was busy trying to close the curbside voting loophole in the voter ID provision of HB 589, so we didn’t pursue the observer question either. But in the 2017 session, we approached Rep. Speciale and he embraced the idea. He even became HB 697’s Primary Sponsor.

Sadly, his bill was left to die in the elections committee. Now, the SBOE proposed rules would make matters worse than from before Republicans gained the majority.  Unless the SBOE hears from the public about this matter, it will be easier for Chief Judges to bully observers out of the polls!

Urgent Action Needed

Help VIP rally the facts and the public (between 1-31 July) on the SBOE’s latest push to limit the rights of election observers at the polling places. Here are the best ways to sound off:

  1. Via on-line: rules@ncsbe.gov
  2. Via snail mail: Attn: Katelyn Love, Deputy General Counsel, 441 N. Harrington Street, Raleigh, NC 27603
  3. By speaking at the public hearing, noon, July 31 at SBOE HQ (441 N. Harrington Street, Raleigh.
  4. If you (or someone you know) were observers who were bullied by precinct judges, please contact VIP or call us at 919.429.9039 and tell us your story.
  5. Complete (to the best of your ability) a VIP Incident Report and contact VIP about how to deliver it in a timely manner. We could offer our mailing address, but time is our enemy for this urgent request, so please contact us separately if you have any specific facts we need to report to the rule makers.

Even if NC had a voter ID law, observers would be the only force in the polling location that would make sure employees are actually following the law, but this proposed rule change will make it harder to hold election officials accountable. This cannot stand.

–  jd