Ahead of early voting and Election Day, the State Board of Elections reminds all North Carolinians that voter intimidation and coercion are prohibited by state and federal law.
“The State Board is committed to ensuring all voters have a safe voting experience, free from intimidation and harassment,” said Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections. “Regardless of political affiliation, every voter deserves to cast their ballot in peace.”
The State Board on Friday issued Numbered Memo 2020-30: Conduct at the Polls for the 2020 General Election. The memo describes prohibited acts, along with actions voters and poll workers should take to ensure a safe voting environment.
Penalties for violations include prison time, fines or both.
One-stop, in-person early voting begins Thursday, October 15 and ends Saturday, October 31. Election Day is November 3.
Buffer zones protect voters from harassment and intimidation when entering a polling place. Electioneering and other activities are prohibited inside the buffer zone.
In most situations, the buffer zone is 50 feet from the entrance to the polling place.
The area outside the buffer zone is a public forum, which the First Amendment protects from most restrictions on political activity.
“We must balance the right of every voter to enter the voting place free from intimidation within these First Amendment protections,” Bell said in the numbered memo.
Control of Polls
The chief judge or one-stop site manager must ensure voters can peacefully access the buffer zone and voting enclosure. If they are unable to do so, the chief judge must contact the county board of elections or law enforcement.
Election officials must be prepared to respond immediately to behavior that disrupts or threatens to disrupt the peace and order of a polling place. If the behavior poses a threat to any person’s safety or a situation seems likely to get out of control, the election official should immediately contact local law enforcement for assistance.
“The State Board has partnerships with federal, state, and local agencies who provide assistance, including monitoring and support on the ground,” Bell said.
County boards of elections are encouraged to meet with law enforcement ahead of elections. Partnerships allow for a swift response if county boards or election officials are unable to control a situation at a voting site.
Although they may be contacted as needed, law enforcement should not be stationed at a voting place, as some voters may find their presence intimidating.
Poll Observers/Poll Watchers
Observers are appointed by political parties, and requirements are outlined in state statute. Observers must be registered to vote in the county, except for the 100 state at-large observers who must be registered in the state.
Observers may observe and take notes, but may not disrupt voters or election officials. Observers may not speak to voters or stand close enough where they could see confidential information.
Each political party is required to submit the list of observers to the county board of elections at least five days before a person is scheduled to observe.
Anyone has the right to watch or monitor the election outside the voting place and outside the marked buffer zone. Members of the public, campaigners, candidates, advocates, and “poll watchers” may not enter the buffer zone or voting enclosure unless they are voting.
A poll watcher has no legal status under North Carolina law and must remain outside the marked buffer zone.
To reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 at the polls, all observers must wear masks when inside the voting enclosure. Social distancing is in place in all polling places and observers should abide by social distancing requirements as outlined in Numbered Memo 2020-18.
Observers who refuse to wear a mask or abide by social distancing will be required to leave the voting place.