A coalition of national and local Republican parties represented by attorney Phil Strach has successfully blocked one of the North Carolina State Board of Elections' ("NCSBE") latest attempts at unlawful rulemaking. (The complaint in Deas v. NCSBE can be found here). NCSBE had interpreted its rules to restrict the coming and going of at-large election observers, stating that, if an at-large observer stayed less than four hours at a particular site, their political party could not send another person to replace them. On Thursday, Wake County Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier decided that the rules governing election place observers should be relaxed.
There are two kinds of election observers in North Carolina: those who must stay at one polling place and at large-observers who can move among polling places. Political parties have long been allowed to send observers to watch voters and election administrators at polling locations to ensure that the electoral process is followed appropriately. NCSBE's guidance would have unfairly impacted election integrity operations since it would have prevented the substitution of regular observers with party lawyers, who could then investigate any irregularities witnessed by non-lawyer observers. As Strach observed: "We wouldn't be able to replace the layperson observer with the lawyer observer .... We would just be screwed."
Although the NCSBE argued that relaxing the rules would lead to disruption in the polling places as a result of the constant ebb and flow of observers, Judge Rozier disagreed, stating that his ruling allowing more flexibility for the at-large observers did not mean that the parties could add more observers on Election Day. They would still have to abide by the rules for obtaining approval ahead of time. "As long as their names are on the list, then one of them may join two other voting-place-specific observers," he added.
Although the GOP prevailed before Judge Rozier on the issue of election observers, they did not have the same success in their attempt to move the deadline for mail-ballots back to three days after the election, as required by statute, from the six days after the election extension given this year due to the Veterans Day holiday.
While the win on the at-large observer challenge will help ensure open, fair, and honest elections in North Carolina, the mail ballot deadline ruling demonstrates once again that attempting to preserve election integrity is and will remain an uphill battle.