Skip Navigation
Resource

North Carolina Precinct Officials: Rules and Constraints

Guardrails to ensure that North Carolina precinct officials cannot disrupt election processes.

Published: October 13, 2022
View the entire Poll Worker Rules and Constraints series

In North Carolina, precinct officials (the state’s legal term for poll workers) play a pivotal role in administering elections. Their duties range from setting up voting equipment and checking in voters to overseeing ballot tabulation and securing the polling location at the end of the day. Like other states across the country, North Carolina has faced poll worker shortages in recent years. For elections to function well, it is critical that government officials recruit enough qualified individuals to serve as precinct officials. It is equally important, however, that these officials perform their duties impartially and uphold the law on Election Day.

Recent media reports have identified efforts around the country to recruit individuals who subscribe to falsehoods about election processes and the integrity of the democratic process as poll workers. While no individual should be turned away as a poll worker based solely on their political beliefs, state and local officials can take reasonable steps to ensure that prospective precinct officials are willing to and do, in fact, set aside any personal or partisan beliefs, follow the law, and faithfully carry out the duties of their position.

North Carolina, like other states, already has many guardrails in place to prevent precinct officials from disrupting election processes. These guardrails are detailed below, along with further actions that government officials can take to prevent disruptions.

Legal Constraints on Precinct Officials

Eligibility

All applicants must go through the appointment process. In North Carolina, county boards of elections appoint two types of precinct officials for each precinct: judges and assistants. footnote1_j3h440n 1 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–41, 163–42.  Each precinct has one chief judge and two additional judges from different political parties, all of whom are appointed in August of odd-numbered years for two-year terms. footnote2_a9x2gqg 2 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–41(a).  County boards assign two or more assistants to each precinct in equal numbers from different political parties, and may appoint them for a particular election or for the same two-year term as judges. footnote3_3ry6d8c 3 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–42(a), (d).  North Carolina law allows each political party to recommend judges and assistants for the county board to appoint, but if these recommendations do not result in enough qualified applicants, or if the parties do not submit lists, the county board may appoint its own selections. footnote4_7wl7hp3 4 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–41(c), 163–42(b).  In practice, many precinct officials are recruited directly by the county board of elections office after completing an application. footnote5_pfkpmh6 5 North Carolina State Board of Elections, “2022 Democracy Heroes Form”, last accessed October 12, 2022, https://www.ncsbe.gov/democracy-heroes-form.

Applicants must meet certain eligibility requirements under North Carolina law. North Carolina law generally requires that judges and assistants be registered voters of their assigned precinct. footnote6_60kf86y 6 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–41(a)-(c).  Residents of different precincts within the same county may, however, serve as judges and assistants if the county board of elections cannot recruit enough qualified precinct officials from within the precinct, provided that they do not make up a majority of the precinct officials at a precinct. footnote7_h6qoj0j 7 Id.  Judges also must be able to read and write and possess “good moral character.” footnote8_xtqpcnp 8 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–41(c).  Seventeen-year-old students may serve as assistants provided they reside in the county in which they are appointed and obtain consent from a parent or guardian. footnote9_c938tcs 9 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–42.1.  Individuals may not serve as judges or assistants if they: (1) hold any local, state, or federal office; (2) are running for office; (3) are the wife, husband, mother, father, son, daughter, brother, or sister of a candidate running for office; footnote10_46trkqa 10 If a precinct official serving a two-year term falls into this category, the county board of elections must temporarily disqualify the precinct official from serving in the election in which the candidate participates and appoint a replacement. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–41.1.  (4) hold any office in a state, congressional district, county, or precinct political party or political organization; or (5) serve as a manager or treasurer for any candidate or political party. footnote11_r3r9cz7 11 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–41(b), 163–41.1.  Further, spouses, children, and in-laws may not serve as precinct officials in the same precinct. footnote12_a91dm2y 12 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–41.1(a).

Applicants must be willing to follow applicable laws and procedures. Before opening the polls, North Carolina law requires precinct officials to take an oath to uphold the constitutions of the United States and North Carolina and administer their duties “without fear or favor.” footnote13_md8029n 13 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–41(e), 163–42(d).  The oath further provides that the precinct official “will not in any manner request or seek to persuade or induce any voter to vote for or against a particular candidate or proposition.” footnote14_9rt9dzx 14 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–41(e).  Consistent with this oath, county boards of elections may refuse to appoint applicants who demonstrate an unwillingness to follow applicable laws and instructions. They cannot, however, turn away applicants solely on the basis of their viewpoints or beliefs so long as they are consistent with laws governing elections. footnote15_q799wkr 15 See generally U.S. Const. amend. I.

Precinct officials must complete training requirements. Pursuant to the state administrative code, the chair of the county board of elections and county elections director (discussed below) must hold an instructional meeting before each primary or election to instruct precinct officials in the use and operating of voting systems and required election tasks. footnote16_8yjhzhn 16 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–46; 08 NCAC 10B .0101, 08 NCAC 04 .0305.  According to the code, the training must “be sufficient such that the precinct officials shall be qualified to instruct the voters on the use of the voting system.” footnote17_agu5726 17 08 NCAC 04 .0305.

Chain of Command

Precinct officials must answer only to their designated county officials. Under North Carolina law, precinct officials are appointed, trained, and compensated by their county board of elections, which maintains the authority to remove them “for incompetency, failure to discharge the duties of office, failure to qualify within the time prescribed by law, fraud, or for any other satisfactory cause.” footnote18_xbsgjmt 18 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–33(2), 163–41, 163–42, 163–46; 08 NCAC 04 .0305, 08 NCAC 10B .0101.  In practice, county boards of elections may delegate these duties to a director of elections. footnote19_57ook02 19 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 165–35(d).  Accordingly, precinct officials must answer only to their county board of elections and elections director rather than to their political party, any party official, or other groups and organizations. To ensure fairness and the nonpartisan execution of election duties, as detailed above, North Carolina law further requires that county boards appoint two judges from each political party per precinct, as well as an equal number of assistants from different political parties. footnote20_gn7frtg 20 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–41(c), 163–42(a).

Judges and assistants are tasked with specific duties to create a clear chain of command structure. Pursuant to North Carolina law, each precinct has one chief judge and two judges, all of whom work together to conduct elections “fairly and impartially” and “enforce peace and good order” in and about the polling place. footnote21_w1okkbk 21 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–47, 163–48.  Examples of “peace and good order” include keeping the polling place open and unobstructed, preventing and stopping any attempts to obstruct, intimidate, or interfere with voting, and ejecting any challenger or witness who violates election laws or rules. footnote22_syjsuaj 22 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–48; 08 NCAC 10B .0101(b).  On Election Day, the chief judge maintains primary responsibility for overseeing their assigned polling place, assigning tasks to other precinct officials, resolving any problems that arise, and communicating any concerns with the county board of elections. footnote23_ophl9tx 23 Id.; see also North Carolina State Board of Elections, “Numbered Memo 2022–12”, October 7, 2022, https://s3.amazonaws.com/dl.ncsbe.gov/sboe/numbermemo/2022/Numbered%20Memo%202022–12%20Maintaining%20Order%20at%20the%20Polls.pdf (last accessed October 12, 2022), at 5.  Precinct judges work closely with and receive assignments from the chief judge. footnote24_lh4djs5 24 08 NCAC 10B. 0101(c).  Their duties range from assisting the chief judge with opening and closing the polling place to counting ballots. footnote25_7fy5k1m 25 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 164–47; see also, e.g., Nash County North Carolina, “Poll Workers”, last accessed October 12, 2022, https://nashcountync.gov/481/Poll-Workers.

Each county board of elections may at its discretion appoint two or more assistants for each precinct to aid the chief judge and judges. footnote26_qrksr8k 26 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–42.  Their duties include checking voter registrations, guiding voters to voting booths and issuing ballots, and performing any other tasks or duties as directed by the judges. footnote27_r7g4jtm 27 08 NCAC 10B. 0101(d).

Following Applicable Laws

Precinct officials are further constrained by their duty to follow applicable federal, state, and local election laws. footnote28_5o80b79 28 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–41(e).  Failure to do so may violate their oath of office, warrant removal, and result in criminal liability. footnote29_4jkr2fh 29 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–33(2), 163–41(e), 163–274, 163–275.  Judges must also actively prevent and stop unlawful behavior by others — including other poll workers — so that voters can cast their votes “in dignity, good order, impartiality, convenience, and privacy.” footnote30_77u1zn6 30 08 NCAB 10B. 0101 (b)(19)-(20), N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–48.  

Precinct officials may not intimidate or harass voters. Federal law prohibits actual or attempted intimidation, threats, or coercion against a voter for the purpose of interfering with the right to vote, and North Carolina law further prohibits using force or violence to interfere with an election. footnote31_1z4qbir 31 52 U.S.C. §§ 10101(b), 10307(b); 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3); 18 U.S.C. § 594; N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–274.  Pursuant to state board of elections guidance, examples of prohibited intimidating behavior include threatening a voter with physical harm if the voter does not vote for a particular candidate or party, and intentionally distributing misleading information about the qualifications required to vote or the time, date, or place of an election. footnote32_w0huqk8 32 North Carolina State Board of Elections, “Numbered Memo 2020–130”, October 9, 2020, https://s3.amazonaws.com/dl.ncsbe.gov/sboe/numbermemo/2020/Numbered%20Memo%202020–30_Conduct%20at%20the%20Polls.pdf (last accessed October 12, 2022), at 4–6.  Precinct officials who violate these provisions may face significant civil and criminal liability, violate their oath of office, and warrant removal. footnote33_dwynpim 33 52 U.S.C. §§ 10101(b), 10307(b); 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3); 18 U.S.C. § 594; N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–33(2), 163–274.  Indeed, North Carolina law requires judges to “prevent and stop” any behavior that “obstruct[s], intimidate[s], or interfere[s] with any person in registering or voting.” footnote34_qt480yx 34 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–48.  Relatedly, state law provides special protections within a designated “buffer zone” at voting locations. footnote35_g863zxh 35 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–166.4(a).  Within the buffer zone, no person — including precinct officials — may hinder access to the polls, harass others, solicit votes, or engage in any sort of political advertising. footnote36_iw42m22 36 Id.; see also N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–41(e), 163–42(d).

Precinct officials may not disrupt elections through disinformation. In addition to prohibiting voter intimidation, North Carolina law prohibits “misrepresent[ing] the law to the public . . . where the intent and effect is to intimidate or discourage potential voters from exercising their lawful right to vote.” footnote37_tfyyfli 37 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–275(17).  As detailed above, intentionally distributing misleading information about the time, date, or place of an election or qualifications to vote may constitute unlawful voter intimidation. footnote38_j1uxz3r 38 North Carolina State Board of Elections, “Numbered Memo 2020–30”, at 4–5. See also, e.g., United States v. North Carolina Republican Party, No. 5:92-cv-00161 (E.D.N.C. Feb. 27, 1992) (approving a consent decree in a case in which the United States alleged that defendants violated Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act by sending postcards with false information about voting requirements and a warning that giving false information to an election official is a federal crime to voters in predominantly Black precincts).  Further, chief judges maintain an affirmative duty to ensure an “honest election administration” at each precinct. footnote39_7chwy72 39 08 NCAB 10B. 0101(b)(17).  Accordingly, spreading false information about who can vote, how and when they can vote, and other aspects of voter eligibility and the voting process may violate the law and warrant removal.

Precinct officials may not improperly challenge a voter’s eligibility. On Election Day, North Carolina law permits precinct officials to challenge voters only under limited circumstances and with clear constraints. footnote40_7lo8tal 40 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–87.  Challenges must be based upon one of several permissible reasons set forth by statute (i.e., state, county, or precinct residency; age; identity; citizenship; prior felony conviction; voting more than once; or party affiliation for primaries). footnote41_ydpqc4c 41 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–85, 163–87.  State law prohibits indiscriminate challenges; they may be made only if the challenger knows or has a reasonable basis to believe that a person is not qualified to vote. footnote42_28aesyg 42 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–90.1.  Indeed, baseless challenges may constitute unlawful voter intimidation under state and federal law. footnote43_1kigami 43 See 18 U.S.C. § 594; 52 U.S.C. § 20511(1); 18 U.S.C. § 245(b)(1)(A); North Carolina State Board of Elections, “Numbered Memo 2020–30”, at 6.  When a challenge is filed, the chief judge and two additional judges for that polling place hear and decide the voter challenge. footnote44_wd74sk8 44 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–88(a).  Based on the type of challenge and the voter’s response, North Carolina law sets forth a clear procedure for whether the precinct officials must provide the voter with a regular ballot. footnote45_1zawhyd 45 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–88, 163–88.1. Under North Carolina law, any voter who is not on the list of registered voters but claims to have registered, or who was removed from the list but maintains their eligibility within the county, may cast a provisional ballot. N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–166.11. If a voter lacks proper photo identification, the voter may cast a provisional ballot. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–166.16(c).  No challenge can be sustained without affirmative proof, and without such proof, precinct officials must assume that the voter is qualified. footnote46_tdkl9fh 46 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–90.1(b).  And even if the precinct officials sustain the challenge, the challenged voter may still request a challenged ballot. footnote47_6glzbsd 47 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–88.1.

Precinct officials must not interfere with the processing of election results. In North Carolina, any person — including a precinct official — who makes, certifies, delivers, or transmits false returns of elections or conceals or destroys any ballot or return with the intent to commit fraud may face felony charges. footnote48_embis8o 48 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–275(9).

Precinct officials must complete certain tasks in two-person teams. To ensure impartiality and fairness, state rules and procedures require that certain tasks be completed in two-person teams. For example, the state administrative code provides that on Election Day, the chief judge must assign two precinct officials — from different political parties, if possible — to keep the pollbook or other voting record and registration list. footnote49_dh5rsu6 49 08 NCAB 10B. 0103(g).

Available Enforcement Mechanisms

County officials maintain broad authority to ensure that elections run smoothly and remain free from disruptions on Election Day. Available enforcement mechanisms include:

Screening process. As noted above, county boards of elections exercise authority over precinct officials through the appointment process. footnote50_mxpnah0 50 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–33, 163–41; 163–42.  Consistent with this authority, county officials can refuse to appoint individuals who cannot meet or are unwilling to follow the above eligibility criteria and constraints. footnote51_xtykpox 51 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–41(c), (e), 163–42(b), (d).

Training content. As detailed above, the chair of each county board of elections, along with the director of elections, must hold an instructional meeting before each primary or election to instruct precinct officials in the use and operation of voting systems and required election tasks. footnote52_qaci9n0 52 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–46; 08 NCAC 10B .0101, 08 NCAC 04 .0305.  At these mandatory trainings, county officials should remind precinct officials about relevant laws and rules, including their duty to answer only to their proper chain of command rather than their political parties, any party official, or any other outside individual or entity. Similarly, county officials should train precinct officials to identify and immediately report any violations of these procedures — whether by their fellow poll workers or other individuals. footnote53_o8e9jrs 53 See, e.g., § 163–48 (requiring judges to “prevent riots, violence, tumult, or disorder”); see also North Carolina State Board of Elections, “Numbered Memo 2022–12”, at 4, 10.  Training sessions also provide an opportunity for officials to clearly explain the security measures and procedures in place to prevent voter fraud or manipulation of the election process.

Assigning precinct officials. Given the chief judge’s role in overseeing the election process and other precinct officials, county boards of elections should choose — to the extent possible — to appoint individuals with previous precinct official experience and demonstrated knowledge of voting procedures. County officials can also aim to track where first-time poll workers are placed, distribute first-time precinct officials evenly across the jurisdiction, and ensure that every precinct has at least one official with previous experience. In the event that vacancies occur, counties may choose to create lists of back-up precinct officials to cover staffing shortages. In fact, state law allows county boards of elections to prepare for staffing shortages by appointing emergency election-day assistants — trained, qualified individuals who remain on call to fill vacancies on Election Day. footnote54_2i2y6kq 54 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–42(c).

Removal procedures. Under North Carolina law, county boards of elections maintain a duty “[t]o investigate irregularities, nonperformance of duties, and violations of laws by” precinct officials and report any violations to the state board of elections. footnote55_lfz8fsk 55 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–33(3).  And as detailed above, precinct officials may be removed from office “for incompetency, failure to discharge the duties of office, failure to qualify within the time prescribed by law, fraud, or for any other satisfactory cause.” footnote56_3apgxiw 56 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–33(2), 163–41, 163–42, 163–46; 08 NCAC 04 .0305, 08 NCAC 10B .0101.  In case a disruption occurs on Election Day, county officials may choose to prepare a set removal plan and procedure that includes, for example: (1) a written list of common grounds for removal or reassignment, (2) proper documentation of the cause of removal and all parties involved, and (3) a list of backup precinct officials to cover staffing shortages, as described above.

Dispute resolution. From time to time, precinct officials may disagree over election rules and procedures. County boards of elections or directors of elections may choose to create set procedures for reporting disputes up the chain of command so that they can be quickly resolved on Election Day. To minimize disruptions to the election process, county officials can also train precinct officials in effective methods of dispute resolution and require precinct officials to agree to and sign a code of conduct in addition to their statutory oath.

Oath of office. The oath of office provides a strong legal basis for preventing and addressing abuses by precinct officials. footnote57_5ithj33 57 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–41(e), 163–42(d).

End Notes