Democracy 101: Election 2016 Has Become About Both Who's Voting, And Who's Watching

Democracy 101: Election 2016 Has Become About Both Who's Voting, And Who's Watching

10:01pm Oct 19, 2016
(Source: NC Board of Elections)

Millions of people are about to head to the polls, and not all of them are voters.

Here’s Donald Trump, speaking in a video recorded by The Washington Post:

“You’ve got to watch your polling booths because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania, certain areas - I hear too many bad stories and we can’t lose an election because you know what I’m talking about.”

Now, North Carolina elections officials are bracing for more people who may keep an eye on the proceedings. So, here's a quick primer on poll watchers.

All this talk about rigging polls – and urging folks to watch the proceedings – prompted the state Board of Elections to take action this week. It issued a statement saying it is increasing security measures and working with law enforcement to safeguard voters.

Poll observing is like a free-speech balancing act, according to Allison Riggs with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham. And she worries the latest rhetoric goes too far.

“It certainly has the potential to incite people to go and try to aggressively challenge voters," she says. "He (Trump) may be inciting people who have no understanding of what state law is who may just go on their own and pick a precinct and go and start harassing voters.”

When you vote, you have some protection: A 50-foot buffer keeps voters away from electioneering (the people who are constantly handing you fliers, pamphlets and voting guides).

Outside of that buffer, people can talk to you and pass out materials. They can also monitor what’s going on and report problems if they see any. But they cannot obstruct or interfere with the voting process. Linda Sutton is an organizer for the non-partisan organization Democracy North Carolina, who has watched the polls for a long time. This year, she’s particularly concerned about interference at precincts serving minority voters.

“We’re just hoping there will not be any intimidation at all, that there will be no confrontations or none of that," she says. "I’m hoping people will remain civil, and take our election seriously, because it’s a serious act."

Outside observers are nothing new at the polls. Guilford County elections director Charlie Collicutt says in the past there have been very few problems. He’s hoping things will be the same this year, but adds that intimidation will not be tolerated.

“We will be on the alert for that, we will watch out for that, we control that buffer zone - I can’t really prognosticate whether that’s going to happen or not,” he says.

Crossing the line could come with a hefty price. Voter harassment is a violation of both state and federal law. Under federal law, intimidating, threatening or coercing a voter is punishable by a fine and up to a year in prison.

Now, let’s back up a moment. North Carolina was already going to have more observers this presidential election. And these folks can be within that 50-foot buffer. They’re chosen by the parties as official poll monitors. They’ve always been there, but the state is allowing for many more - up to 10 at-large observers per party in each county. 

That change was part of an overhaul of the state’s election laws passed by the Republican legislature in 2013. Much of the law, including a photo ID requirement, was struck down by a federal court over the summer. But the court let the increase in poll observers stand. This will be the first presidential election with the change in place.

Both parties have been encouraging their members to volunteer as poll observers. But their outreach says a lot about how they each view the electoral process. Democrats want poll watchers to look for voter suppression. Republicans will be emphasizing voter fraud.

That’s the main concern for Ernie Wittenborn, chairman of the Guilford County Republican Party and himself a former official poll observer. He says, especially after the firebombing of a Republican headquarters building in Orange County, he’s really worried that could be a precursor of attempts to interfere with the voting process.

“Although no one knows who did this – and we certainly hope and expect it was the isolated incident by a deranged individual – it is not inconceivable that the deranged individual intended to intimidate and suppress the actions of the Republican Party,” he says.

So, what should you do if poll watchers are interfering with you or intimidating you when you go to vote? You can report it to the chief judge at the precinct or call your county elections office.

Support your
public radio station