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North Carolina Precinct Officials: Rules and Constraints

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

Last Updated: March 18, 2024
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 worked tirelessly to combat election worker shortages over the last several election cycles. 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.

In recent years, 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. In advance of the 2024 election cycle, this guide details those guardrails along with further actions that government officials can take to prevent disruptions on Election Day.

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_iKh1DO2zAZoZ1N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–41, 163–42. The same rule applies to early voting sites. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–166.35(a1). Each precinct has one chief judge and two additional judges (each from different political parties), all of whom are appointed in August of odd-numbered years for two-year terms.footnote2_h9asE3ls8mi82N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–41(a); see also id. at § 163.30(a) (specifying that county board of elections terms begin in odd-numbered years). North Carolina law allows county boards of elections to provide early voting sites, at which judges and assistants are appointed pursuant to the same procedures. Id. at § 163–166.35(a1). 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_fJhW0InQujlM3N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–42(a), (d). Precincts with more than 500 registered voters may add additional assistants. Id. § 163–42(a). 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_n7kxnTGQir9K4N.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_btwAEsUpJkbP5North Carolina State Board of Elections, “2023–4 Democracy Heroes Form”, last accessed Mar. 15, 2024, 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 the county in which their assigned precinct is located.footnote6_ddifhs6KOxci6N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–41(a), 163–42(a). 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_oNc9UI4JygqK7Id. Judges also must be able to read and write and possess “good moral character.”footnote8_vW1FpnXuvM5K8N.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, obtain consent from a parent or guardian, and obtain a recommendation from their school.footnote9_c6VfgvBt1PJG9N.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_eDMLSJeCLAko10If 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(b).(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_il2hpBZPJl2A11N.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_aZhUJcVivPA112N.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_bboiHzMrIjod13N.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_wUSe5ORPp9Kx14N.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 should not, however, turn away applicants solely on the basis of their viewpoints or beliefs so long as they are consistent with laws governing elections.footnote15_ycNbBwYzwXdS15See 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_tYJVzENf2jki16N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–46; 08 NCAC 04 .0305, 08 NCAC 10B .0101. 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_juRtyS9C0vKl1708 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_dHkP08bMu6ib18N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–33(2); see also, id. at §§ 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_dt05vy4RjqIZ19N.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_hXb1Oa3x5Qb220N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–41(c), 163–42(a).North Carolina law sets forth a test for whether an organization qualifies as a political party for purposes of precinct official appointments.footnote21_zqyypKDD2n4x21N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–97 (referring to test set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–96(a)(1)).

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.footnote22_ziWZ1scE4TOk22N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–47(a), 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.footnote23_cJ9rsl8k5ysf23N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–48; 08 NCAC 10B .0101(b)(19). 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.footnote24_pYD2HR8kJIfz24Id.; 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 Mar. 15, 2024), at 5. Precinct judges work closely with and receive assignments from the chief judge.footnote25_zCYqewMPkBdP2508 NCAC 10B .0101(c). Their duties range from assisting the chief judge with opening and closing the polling place to counting ballots.footnote26_mIqLELqhq4H926N.C. Gen. Stat. § 164–47; see also, e.g., Nash County North Carolina, “Poll Workers”, last accessed Mar. 15, 2024, https://nashcountync.gov/481/Poll-Workers.

As described above, each county board of elections may at its discretion appoint two or more assistants for each precinct to aid the chief judge and judges.footnote27_kVnnlabksolF27N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–42. Assistants’ 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.footnote28_bVAeC9d4Gg772808 NCAC 10B .0101(d).

Following Applicable Laws

Precinct officials are further constrained by their duty to follow applicable federal, state, and local election laws.footnote29_qWQGYnY2iRYJ29N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–41(e). Failure to do so may violate their oath of office, warrant removal, and result in criminal liability.footnote30_pKmTyMaw6BbX30N.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.”footnote31_rp6C9ZLoTlAp3108 NCAC 10B .0101 (b)(20); see also 08 NCAC 10B .0101 (b)(19), (c)(9); 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.footnote32_jcTZrsTQFDJh3252 U.S.C. §§ 10101(b), 10307(b); 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3); 18 U.S.C. § 594; N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–274(a)(4). 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.footnote33_fgJ9DQ5FlwoO33North Carolina State Board of Elections, “Numbered Memo 2022–12”, at 6–7. Precinct officials who violate these provisions may face significant civil and criminal liability, violate their oath of office, and warrant removal.footnote34_onp9AFIFaG253452 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), 163–273, 163–274(a)(7), 163–275(17). 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.”footnote35_uEPEPV23xd2a35N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–48. Relatedly, state law provides special protections within a designated “buffer zone” at voting locations.footnote36_fG0B7cI47jLZ36N.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.footnote37_xq7kKCNw2cJT37Id.

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.”footnote38_eocL46KyskeK38N.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.footnote39_kj4UqdMQK7DR39North Carolina State Board of Elections, “Numbered Memo 2022–12”, at 6–7. 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.footnote40_ryl1z0BgngFh4008 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. During early voting and on Election Day, North Carolina law permits precinct officials to challenge voters only under limited circumstances and with clear constraints.footnote41_sXdaEOCbDGju41N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–85, 163–87. Challenges must be based upon one of several permissible reasons set forth by statute (i.e., state, county, age; identity; citizenship; prior felony conviction; voting more than once; failure to present photo ID; or party affiliation for primaries).footnote42_jwxeSl1PcdZS42N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–85(c), 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 qualified to vote.footnote43_wpUt64Uo4umn43N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–90.1. Indeed, baseless challenges may constitute unlawful voter intimidation under state and federal law.footnote44_wTHHjWewl31c44See 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 2022–12”, at 9. When a challenge is filed, the chief judge and two additional judges for that polling place hear and decide the voter challenge.footnote45_lSL9nXJ2JWMT45N.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.footnote46_xEWNIG3nQ3RP46N.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.footnote47_qKTnmLxfSwUq47N.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.footnote48_hPr05yHxg6tK48N.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.footnote49_fg3F9wsb5i8h49N.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 the chief judge and a judge of another political party must “close the polls” together on Election Day.footnote50_l11jmLiwlU9s5008 NCAB 10B .0105(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:

Appointment and assignment processes. As noted above, county boards of elections exercise authority over precinct officials through the appointment process.footnote51_oJSx6PqqaCKS51N.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.footnote52_nI2EhRKrzDb952N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–41(c), (e), 163–42(b), (d).

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 also can 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 backup 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.footnote53_kH5sFxkRosDe53N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–42(c).

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.footnote54_jifrqjPalHES54N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163–46; 08 NCAC 10B .0101(b)(1), (c)(1), 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.footnote55_pkwEVcLD05QO55See, 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.

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.footnote56_h0xCq6fcOW9F56N.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.”footnote57_xQiPf8lGviz357N.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 also can 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.footnote58_sPf7zwYLN7yZ58N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163–41(e), 163–42(d).

End Notes