NC commission rejects restrictions on poll watchers

(Photo: WWAY)

RALEIGH, North Carolina (AP) – The North Carolina Rules Review Commission 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 election. .

The decision follows a unanimous election board vote to more clearly define 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 poll books where they could see marked ballots or confidential voter information. Election officials would have the power to expel observers who attempt to enter restricted areas, interact with voters or disrupt the conduct of elections.

Appointed by political parties as their eyes and ears at polling stations, poll watchers are authorized by state law to take notes in designated areas and report concerns to a precinct official.

Although the elections board approved the tightening of 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 U.S. legislature. Republican-controlled state.

The commission rejected the council’s proposal on Thursday, citing its staff’s view that the rules were “not reasonably necessary” and “ambiguous and unclear”, legal adviser William Peaslee wrote.

Commission President Jeanette Doran did not respond to calls for further explanation of the commission’s reasoning.

The decision comes as North Carolina prepares to vote this fall in several close 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 get the few seats they need to override the Democratic governor’s veto.

Electoral board spokesman Patrick Gannon said the board believes these rule changes are necessary to “immediately provide better guidance 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 changing and resubmitting the rules to the commission or appealing the decision in court.

The Rules Review Commission is a little-known panel outside of state government circles. Commissioners decide whether to approve or reject rules for temporary or permanent agencies — details that lawmakers have delegated to departments.

Approval may be based on whether the rules are clear and unambiguous and whether the state agency proposing them has the authority to enforce them.

A 2020 lawsuit filed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper challenges the composition of the commission, saying he has no meaningful control over the panel, undermining the executive’s power to set policy. The Governor believes that he should be able to appoint the majority of his members. A hearing in the lawsuit is scheduled for this fall.

By the time the lawsuit was filed, the commission had blocked about 200 rules from going into effect over the previous two years, according to Cooper’s attorneys.

The Republican National Committee and Republican Party of North Carolina wrote a letter to the commission earlier this week, saying the proposed rules “do not ensure the integrity of the electoral process” and “rather restrict the ability of Carolina voters of the North to observe and report on the elections”. fraud.”

Former President Donald Trump’s debunked claims that the 2020 presidential election results were fraudulent have prompted thousands of his supporters to scrutinize election operations nationwide.

A state board survey of county election officers in late May found violations in 15 North Carolina counties, where officials observed poll watchers harass voters and attempt to enter restricted areas to consult confidential voting records.

Gannon said the issues identified in the survey “were not limited to observers from any particular political party,” but demonstrated the need for tougher rules across the state.

The board of elections had been pushing for temporary rule changes this election cycle in hopes the commission would approve them before in-person early voting begins on Oct. 20, said Paul Cox, associate counsel at the state board. .

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