Jane Hughes manages the ballot distribution table at the Eaton Elementary polling station in Wilmington early Tuesday evening. Photo: Carolina Public Press / Mark Darrough

This piece accompanies the “NC’s poll watcher bill stirs debate” story.

In the U.S., poll watchers have participated in elections since the 18th century. Laws and rules for poll watchers vary from state to state. The role of poll watchers came under scrutiny by the Republican National Committee during the 2020 elections, after former President Donald Trump’s allegations of voter fraud.

Poll watchers provide transparency and are a part of the checks and balances system for elections. 

“Poll watchers can increase some trust in the system,” said Christopher Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University

“If I’m a Democratic or Republican voter and I see a member of my own party there, it can be a cue that everything is OK and there is no systematic widespread voter fraud,” Cooper said. He doesn’t view poll watchers as necessary to ensure a fair election, but they do play an important role, he said. 

Currently, only poll observers appointed by a political party, or partisan poll watchers, are allowed inside the polling locations, according to the N.C. State Board of Elections. The chief judge, or supervisor of an election precinct, selects a space for observers that is close enough to where they can hear voters checking in without disrupting voting.

Each political party can appoint two site-specific poll watchers and one at-large observer, and they can be at a polling location at the same time. 

Currently, poll watchers are allowed to take notes, electronically on a computer or phone, without taking pictures, video or audio. They can periodically approach registration, ballot or help tables so long as they are not disrupting voters or election officials, or viewing confidential information. 

Poll watchers can also report their concerns to the chief judge or the one-stop manager, walk outside the polling location to monitor curbside voting, walk outside to make calls as allowed by the chief judge or one stop manager, get a list of voters who have voted, and view bound sets of completed authorization to vote or one-stop applications. 

They are prohibited from the following: 

  • Disrupting election workers when they open or close the polls 
  • Speaking to voters or voter assistants
  • Disrupting the voting process
  • Wearing or passing out campaign material
  • Going behind the registration ballot or help tables
  • Entering the voting booths
  • Going near voting equipment
  • Viewing confidential voter information
  • Seeing what’s on the voted ballots
  • Getting into cars containing curbside voters
  • Providing voters with assistance or photograph
  • Filming or recording voters without proper consent. 

But CPP spoke to three poll watchers who said that the rules varied from polling location to polling location in terms of what they could or couldn’t do.

“The chief judges had dissenting ideas or understanding on what was and wasn’t allowed,” said Josh Prizer, a Wake County Republican poll watcher. “It was dependent upon the chief judge at different polling locations.” 

Jay DeLancy, a former poll watcher who has served in more than a dozen elections and the executive director of the Voter Integrity Project of NC, a Fuquay-Varina-based organization, said sometimes election officials impose additional restrictions. 

“The law has been clear that there are only a few things an observer is not allowed to do,” DeLancy said. “Officials from the precinct level, county elections directors and the state board of elections come up with — just dream up new—restrictions outside of the law.”

DeLancy said he believes the new rules will provide more clarity by codifying the responsibilities of a poll watcher.


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Mehr Sher is the staff democracy reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact her at msher@carolinapublicpress.org.

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  1. I have a few concerns/questions about this article. The story says CPP spoke to three poll watchers, but only two are quoted, both with a Republican perspective. Why? SB 747 would expand observers’ range within election sites, allowing them to move more freely around the site, potentially enabling them to hear conversations within the election booth as the voters mark their ballots. It also allows watchers to photograph poll workers before and after opening and closing the polls (which seems disruptive and intimidating). The article presents what poll observers “currently” can do but doesn’t specifically contrast that with what they WILL be able to do under SB 747 if the legislature overrides the governor’s veto. Why not? Also, the chief judge’s function is to make determinations about what, for example, constitutes “going near voting equipment.” It is no surprise that a chief judge might restrict poll watchers to a smaller area if the election site is smaller, for another example. Making judgments about how to carry out the provisions for poll watching is the judge’s job.

    1. Thanks for reaching out! Just to clear things up, all three poll watchers were quoted in the accompanying story, and one of them is indeed from the Democratic side. If you take a look at the main story [https://carolinapublicpress.org/61251/ncs-poll-watcher-bill-stirs-debate-will-it-secure-elections-or-limit-voting-access/] it dives deeper into the differences between what’s currently allowed and what the bill proposes. Hope that helps clarify things a bit!