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North Carolina Poll Watchers: Rules and Constraints

This resource details state and federal laws that govern who can be a poll watcher, what they can do, and how election workers can regulate them.

Published: June 26, 2024
View the entire Poll Watchers Rules and Constraints series

Poll watchers, referred to as “observers” in North Carolina, are individuals who monitor polling places and ballot counting sites. While poll watchers play an important role in providing transparency, they can also be a potential source of disruption and intimidation. For this reason, all states have a series of regulations and constraints regarding who can serve as poll watchers and what they can do. North Carolina’s can be found in mostly the state’s election statutes. Additionally, the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE) recently published a memo that contains useful guidance. The regulations and constraints are:

Appointment

  • Political parties may appoint observers subject to these limitations:
    • The chair of a county-level political party may appoint people who are registered to vote in that county. The chair may designate up to two people to observe at each polling place in that county, plus up to 10 people who may observe at any polling place in the county.footnote1_h4IlRiHUWZyy1N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–45.1(b)(1)-(2).
    • The chair of a state-level political party may appoint up to 100 observers, who must be registered to vote in North Carolina. They may observe at any polling place in the state.footnote2_iQaq19TZKXfy2N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45.1(b)(3).
    • An unaffiliated candidate or the candidate’s campaign manager may appoint up to two people to observe at each polling place in the state.footnote3_x1hUEkt78UmW3N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45.1(b)(4).
  • Observers may serve only at polling places where the party that appointed them has a candidate appearing on the ballot.footnote4_t2fnRhqKMyil4N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–45.1(b)(1)-(3). Similarly, observers appointed by an unaffiliated candidate or the candidate’s campaign manager may observe only at polling places where the candidate appears on the ballot. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45.1(b)(4).
  • No more than three observers of the same political party may be in the same polling place at any given time. footnote5_asz1DocZMwDE5N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45.1(e).
  • Candidates and election officials are ineligible to serve as observers.footnote6_nbIuDlLhu17z6N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45.1(e).
  • A county board of elections or the chief judge of a voting site may challenge the appointment of an observer, but only for good cause and only if the challenger has evidence that the observer could impact the conduct of the election.footnote7_xtAeucBlO5hq7N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45.1(f).

Role of Observers

  • Observers contribute to elections in North Carolina by “making the voting process transparent to representatives of the parties and candidates vying for office.”footnote8_jOvpL048X5hu8Karen Brinson Bell (Executive Director of North Carolina State Board of Elections), numbered memorandum 2023–06, Re: Election Observers, December 13, 2023, 1, https://s3.amazonaws.com/dl.ncsbe.gov/sboe/numbermemo/2023/Numbered%20Memo%202023–06%20Election%20Observers.pdf.
  • Provided that they do not interfere with voter privacy or the conduct of the election, observers can move about the polling place (although they may not enter a voting booth with a voter), take notes, and listen to conversations between a voter and an election official (as long as it is related to election administration and provided the watchers do not access voting equipment or ballots or see confidential information on the voter lists).footnote9_p1N8Y8zHfndc9N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–45.1(g)(1)-(3).
  • Observers can report perceived problems or irregularities to the chief judge of the polling place, the county and/or state board of elections, or the party or candidate that appointed them.footnote10_uQROd8szEU0v10Bell, Re: Election Observers, 1.

Prohibited Activities

To prevent observers from disrupting elections, North Carolina law prohibits the following activities:

  • Obstruction: Observers are prohibited from inhibiting or interfering with any election officials in the performance of their duties, including the transport of election equipment and materials to the county board of elections.footnote11_myHQWDTwhWlo11N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–45.1(h)(3), 163–274(4)-(5).
  • Intimidation: Under North Carolina law, intimidation of voters and/or of election workers is a criminal offense.footnote12_xPy5kFVCszPN12N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–274(a)(7), 163–275(10)-(11).As discussed below, the NCSBE explains in detail what constitutes intimidation.
  • Electioneering: Observers are forbidden from engaging in electioneering while inside the polling place.footnote13_bdk4DYPnmsT013N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45.1(h)(4).
  • Photography and Video: No one, including observers, may photograph, videotape, or otherwise record the image of a voter inside the voting booth without the permission of the voter and the chief judge of the precinct.footnote14_wpznNHax7GuP14N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–166.3(b).
  • Viewing Ballots: Observers are forbidden from looking at, photographing, videotaping, or otherwise recording the image of any voter’s marked ballot.footnote15_jvbnhGS7pxiI15N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45.1(h)(1).
  • Impeding Movement: Observers may not impede the movement of any voter trying to enter or exit the polling place.footnote16_jBW3nbE07tCZ16N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45.1(h)(2).
  • Phone Calls: While observers are allowed to take notes on their phone, they cannot make or receive phone calls while inside the polling place. Observers can make or take calls outside the polling place. footnote17_bdmkOtHlrYz717N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–45.1(g)(1), (g)(5), (h)(5).

The NCSBE’s memo places additional restrictions on observers:

  • Intimidation: The NCSBE’s memo describes how intimidation can take “many forms” and may include threats of violence, bodily harm, economic harm, legal action, dissemination of personal information, and surveillance. Attempts to intimidate constitute intimidation even when the voter still votes.footnote18_lslGZoy2KNKt18Bell, Re: Election Observers, 9.
    • Election officials should consider whether the “specific circumstances” would make a voter “reasonably fearful, threatened, or coerced” from the voter’s point of view.
  • Examples of Intimidation: This list is not exhaustive, and officials should use the above guidance to decide whether a given situation is intimidating.
    • Questioning Voters: Observers who have concerns about a voter’s eligibility should not confront a voter but instead follow North Carolina’s challenge procedures.footnote19_xa6PZUErBlYe19Bell, Re: Election Observers, 8.
    • Filing Baseless Voter Challenges: Filing voter challenges without sufficient evidence can be intimidating towards eligible voters, particularly towards voter of color.footnote20_p9nTsLQOD8zN20Bell, Re: Election Observers, 11.
    • Posing as Ballot Security Forces: This includes “wearing or carrying items that create the appearance that an individual is performing an official government function such as public or private security uniforms . . . or guns or badges.”footnote21_v5PR1mi82rCf21Bell, Re: Election Observers, 10.
    • Following or Recording Voters: This includes recording license plate numbers.footnote22_ganzka0jiz5122Bell, Re: Election Observers, 10–11.

Federal and state law strictly prohibit all people, including observers, from engaging in voter intimidation. Any action that makes a voter feel intimidated, threatened, or coerced (including any effort to prevent a voter from registering to vote, voting, or voting for or against any candidate or ballot measure) could constitute voter intimidation, regardless of whether it breaks a specific rule.footnote23_eGPYxLCAgM4W2318 U.S.C. §§ 241, 594; 52 U.S.C. § 10101(b).

Removal

  • North Carolina state law expressly empowers the chief judge of a polling place to remove observers who look at ballots, impede voter movement, talk on the phone, interfere with election workers, or electioneer.footnote24_ob3wTFqprPdv24N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45.1(j).
  • Chief judges are also empowered to remove observers for good cause, as long as they have evidence that the observer could impact the conduct of the election.footnote25_dWFzwbj7dbxH25N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45.1(j).
  • When possible, chief judges should give an observer a spoken or written warning before removing them.footnote26_ai1rsuKdF0Vr26N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45.1(j).
  • If a chief judge removes an observer, the chief judge must immediately notify the county board of elections, which in turn must notify the party that appointed the observer so it may appoint a replacement.footnote27_a3ZH4WkMnZjy27N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–45.1(j).

End Notes