Politics & Government

Here’s what polling-precinct observers can and can’t do in NC

Voters wait patiently in line to vote at University City Regional Library Thursday morning. Thursday was the first day of early voting in Mecklenburg County.
Voters wait patiently in line to vote at University City Regional Library Thursday morning. Thursday was the first day of early voting in Mecklenburg County. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Even as Donald Trump alleges voting fraud and a rigged presidential election, don’t expect legions of his observers crowding into North Carolina precincts to ensure returns are on the up-and-up.

The rules governing polling places across the state don’t allow it.

The goal, according to Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson, is to protect the privacy of each vote while allowing the presence of poll watchers to help ensure that the process is legal and fair.

Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has warned for months that voter fraud could cost him the White House, and he’s asked supporters to serve as sentries at polling stations to make sure the election is not stolen. That drumbeat has picked up in recent days, now that his race with Democrat Hillary Clinton hinges on North Carolina and other so-called battleground states.

A Trump supporter in suburban Cincinnati told the Boston Globe that he intended to do his part.

“I’ll look for ... well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American,” the voter said. “I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”

Earlier this month, an email appearing to have come from the Trump campaign went out to Republican voters, seeking volunteers to monitor Mecklenburg County’s early voting sites.

“You are our eyes and ears on the ground,” the email said. “Without observers, we have no way of knowing when and where Democrats are attempting to commit voter fraud.”

Towner Blackstock of Charlotte, a registered Republican, said he received the solicitation Oct. 6. and described it as “shocking.” Many of the sites listed are home to high-minority voting populations, including Beatties Ford Library, Marion Diehl Recreation Center and the Midwood Cultural Center on Central Avenue.

At worst, the email solicits “voter intimidation,” Blackstock said. At the very least, it is “whipping up a sense in people” that fraud is occurring at precincts where minorities cast the bulk of the votes.

The heightened tensions over the veracity of the election come amid Justice Department warnings that it will have fewer trained observers at precincts to guard against voter intimidation, due to the 2013 Supreme Court decision eliminating portions of the Voting Rights Act.

Dickerson, however, said the rules limiting who can observe elections and how they do it should ensure an orderly and accurate process.

“We always have observers – there’s nothing new to the concept,” said Dickerson, the county’s election chief for 18 years. “Most of the time they just validate what we do. We really don’t care who wins, just that the votes are properly recorded.”

Among the rules that will be enforced through Nov. 8:

▪ Each polling place can have no more than two persons from each party acting as observers. They must be registered voters and a member of the party they’ll be representing, and they must be prepared to present ID if asked.

▪ All names for observers must be submitted by the political parties to the county’s Board of Elections five days before the voting day they wish to monitor, naming the polling place they want to watch. In other words, if the GOP wants to observe early voting at a particular site this Saturday, it must submit the required names by 10 a.m. Tuesday.

▪ Each polling place maintains a 50-foot, no-politicking buffer extending from the entrance to where voting takes place. Approved election observers can stand inside the voting enclosure, Dickerson said, but they are not permitted to be close enough to see how anyone votes. That way, the ballots stay confidential.

▪  No guns are permitted at any voting site.

“You may not intimidate and you cannot threaten voters anywhere in the precinct,” Dickerson said. If poll workers spot such behavior, they are instructed to stop it. If it continues, they can call the elections office or the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.

That said, Dickerson doesn’t expect the remainder of early voting, which started Thursday, and Election Day to be anything other than routine.

Studies have shown that voting fraud on the scale that Trump describes has never occurred in a modern U.S. election. A Loyola Law School professor found 31 fraudulent votes out of 1 billion cast from 2000 to 2014.

Still, Republican legislatures – including North Carolina’s – cited ballot fraud as justification for passing restrictive laws that required voter ID and reduced early voting times and eliminated same-day registration. North Carolina’s package was struck down by the federal courts earlier this year.

State Republican Chairman Dallas Woodhouse said Trump’s warnings of a rigged election have not led to a significant uptick in GOP voters volunteering to scrutinize the vote. He said the state organization already has a “good program in place” to recruit and train election observers.

“I think our people are naturally suspicious of Democrats after they worked so hard to keep us from having Voter ID,” Woodhouse said. “But our observers know not to interfere or obstruct and to follow the absolute letter of the law.

“... Both sides are dedicated to having a fair process.”

As with all major elections, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte and the FBI say they will be on the lookout for instances of illegal voting or voter intimidation.

“Every citizen must be able to vote without interference or discrimination and to have that vote counted without it being stolen because of fraud,” U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose said Monday. “The Department of Justice will act promptly and aggressively to protect the integrity of the election process.”

Those who want to report election fraud or voting rights violations in Charlotte can call Rose’s office at 704-344-6222.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS