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Bell’s War On Poll Observers

March 24, 2022 (Raleigh) Late yesterday, North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) Chief Counsel, Katelyn Love delivered the bad news from elections boss, Karen Brinson “Bartlett” Bell, in response to several Voter Integrity Project – NC queries intended to avoid costly litigation against SBE’s repeated efforts to diminish and demoralize any effective poll observers.

Instead of working cooperatively toward reasonable solutions, the rogue agency doubled down, further subverting the legislative intent of a state law (§163-45) governing poll observers.

Their latest decree made it easier for poll judges to stick any serious observers in a distant corner and kick them out if they ask too many questions.

Of course, any docile observers can stay, as long as they agree to sit in a far-away corner and play solitaire on their phones; but the ones we’ve trained on gathering effective documentation will experience a different fate.

Our final appeal on this matter is the following open letter to the General Assembly.

Dear Senators and Representatives…

We have a problem. Though SBE’s timely response was appreciated, it marks an escalation of their war on poll observers. We hope their most recent lawless actions will finally merit technical corrections addressing two specific measures, Observer presence and observer mobility.

Observer Presence

You might recall adding “at-large observers” to §163-45, which previously limited their voting-enclosure capacity to “not more than two observers from the same political party.” The statute added exceptions that neither a “runner,” nor an “at-large” observer would count against the two-observer limit, but the SBE managed to twist this language and undermine legislative intent. In total, SBE policy is that “no more than one at-large observer” is ever allowed inside the voting enclosure. They do this in agency regulations (08 NCAC 20 .0101) by writing, “Only one at-large observer from each political party may be in the voting enclosure at any time, even if no precinct-specific observers are present [emphasis added].”

Discussion:

Numerous county party chairs have advised us of their great difficulty in recruiting adequate numbers of precinct-specific observers. Instead, they fall back on deploying the ten at-large observers and their more troublesome early voting locations and precincts can only have one observer. This is because SBE’s regulation had the effect of making one at-large observer worth two precinct-specific observers.  Had that been the Legislature’s intent, §163-45 they would have added language allowing “not more than one at-large observer at any time.” Since the

Legislature never added that restriction to the law, it’s time to undo some of the SBE’s corrosive behavior.

Proposed Remedy:

Respectfully suggest a technical correction to §163-45, along these lines:

“Not more than two observers from the same political party shall be permitted in the voting enclosure at any time, except that any  in addition one of the at-large observers from each party may also be in the voting enclosure, shall not have a combined presence of more than three observers from each party.”

Observer Mobility

SBE continues their ongoing effort to restrict poll observers access by adding language to this year’s “SBE Monitor Observer Runner Guide” (Observer Tips 2022). While we can all agree that confidentiality rules prohibit observers from certain places inside the polls, the law cites no further restrictions on observer movements. In spirit of §163-45(c), the 2016 version of their same guide (Observer Tips 2016) clarified the observers’ the right to “observe the registration, ballot, and help tables without impeding voters or precinct officials [and] walk outside the voting enclosure to observe the curbside voting area.” The SBE’s newer, more restrictive, guidance only allows observers to “Periodically approach the registration, ballot, or help tables [emphasis added].” It also empowers the chief judge or one-stop manager with an never-codified “discretion to limit this activity.”

Discussion:

There are several troublesome consequences of this stealth policy change.

First, by stipulating that observers may only “periodically” visit the three most critical nodes of the entire voting process, it begs the question of where observers will normally be stationed. After every federal election for more than a decade, we’ve received myriad reports of how oppressive chief judges and one-stop managers restricted observers to some a single chair or a small taped-off zone. In either case, they make sure the observer is unable to hear or see anything. This—possibly–illegal sanction stopped observers from exercising their §163-45(c) statutory rights “to make such observation and take such notes as the observer may desire.” In some cases, we even enlisted attorneys to oppose such restrictive rules, but it was on a precinct-by-precinct basis. Since there are 2,700 precincts in NC, I’m sure you can see the problem. While we always won those skirmishes, the SBE rigged it such that we could only win the ones we could fight. Long after the election, we learn how a vast majority of observers simply obey the Judge, sit in a far corner, and checked out. Perhaps as an intended SBE consequence, those same disgruntled people tell their friends that poll observing is “a waste of time.” This action makes recruiting future poll observers all the more difficult.

Second, we always train our observers to stay near enough to the check-in table to hear when any problems arise and only visit the help desk and the curbside voting areas as needed.  Pretending for a moment that we did follow the SBE’s newly codified law, poll Judges could have up to six poll observers pestering them for permission to move out of their containment area and gather actionable documentation of crimes or other system failures. The SBE’s pre-determined ending to several observers asking permission “too many times” is for them to be deemed “disruptive.” That way, any effective observers would be ejected from the premises and ineffective observers would sit in the corner, play Spider, and later badmouth the entire observer law.

Third, by their own past observer-cutting proposal, their election-day observer suppression efforts, and their play-dead legal defense (see page 14) in a lawsuit against statewide at-large observers, the SBE clearly wants to get rid of poll observers by any means necessary. Their latest guidance demonstrates their pattern of conduct that undermines public trust in our entire electoral process.

Proposed Remedy:

Respectfully suggest a technical correction to §163-45(c) along these lines:

“(c) An observer shall do no electioneering at the voting place, and shall in no manner impede the voting process or interfere or communicate with or observe any voter in casting a ballot, but, subject to these restrictions, the chief judge and judges of elections shall permit not restrict the observer to from make making such observation and take taking such notes as the observer may desire.”

Though this law’s original wording has always been adequate enough for the mainstream of election directors across North Carolina to grant wide observer mobility, SBE must not understand.

Would you mind helping them get the hint?