Current focus: #NCVotes 2020, tips and tools for NC journalists
The NC Local News Workshop, with the NC Open Government Coalition, NC Press Association and other partners, will take local journalists’ questions, track down answers, and provide links to timely, relevant resources to support strong local coverage of the general election.
Asked and answered (see the running list):
Posted Oct. 13, 2020:
Q: How can I know what’s allowed or not allowed in terms of unofficial “ballot watchers” or “poll watchers” — people who might show up outside voting places to try to police or watch over voting. Is that legal? Who decides what’s voter intimidation versus legal assembly?
A: The best immediate advice is for reporters to get familiar with both law and policy (links below) on voter intimidation, and talk now with local elections and law enforcement officials in their counties. These local leaders will be overseeing the voting process and election, and journalists can find out what their plans are and develop key sourcing and background as they cover in-person voting beginning Oct. 15. Also, look for plans from local political parties, activist groups, or organized voter protection campaigns.
From Brooks Fuller, director of the NC Open Government Coalition:
I think one of the most important things to remember here is that there’s a difference between the official position of poll watcher and unofficial citizen observers. Poll watchers are appointed by county party chairs and they are allowed within voting sites to make sure that election officials are answering voter questions honestly and rendering effective service to voters in need. They can listen to interactions between poll workers and voters, but my understanding is that they are not allowed to handle machines, election infrastructure (tabulators, ballots, etc.). There are limits on how many poll watchers (observers) may be in the voting enclosure at any given time (two from each party). They may not impede voter access in any way. The relevant statute is N.C.G.S. §163-45, which includes more details.
Federal law prohibits intimidation of voters:
“Whoever intimidates, threatens, coerces, or attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce, any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote or to vote as he may choose, or of causing such other person to vote for, or not to vote for, any candidate for the office of President, Vice President, Presidential elector, Member of the Senate, Member of the House of Representatives, Delegate from the District of Columbia, or Resident Commissioner, at any election held solely or in part for the purpose of electing such candidate, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”
Subject to other reasonable time, place or manner restrictions, citizens are permitted to gather outside the electioneering buffer zone at a polling place so long as they are not obstructing access to a polling place or intimidating voters. The gray area is when the mere presence of outside groups would alarm or discourage a voter from casting a ballot, and that would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
My recommendation is for journalists to contact their county board of elections to learn more about what security measures are being put in place for early voting and election day. County directors are likely partnering with local law enforcement to be on heightened alert about reports of voter intimidation, but their enforcement mechanisms and policies may vary.
- The NC Board of Elections issued this statement on Oct. 9, reminding the public that voter intimidation is illegal. Here’s the more detailed numbered memo on the subject from Karen Brinson Bell, state elections director.
- The News & Observer’s Richard Stradling reported Oct. 13 on an element of the BOE directive that said uniformed law enforcement officers should not be posted at polling places, and the debate over this position and the board’s authority
- Nationally, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers this Election Legal Guide
- The ProPublica Electionland project (which has several NC newsrooms participating) is covering voting, tracking issues and inviting public participation in reporting election problems
To ask questions: Tag @ncnewsworks with questions on Twitter or Facebook; use the #ncvotes hashtag; or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll track down answers and post them through our channels. We’ll also share answers from others.
This week’s spotlight: Early voting starts Oct. 15: Resources for NC journalists (from Eric Frederick in NC Local, Oct. 14)
- Here’s the Election Legal Guide from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an overview of legal issues and access rights for journalists covering the voting. The North Carolina section details what information you’re entitled to request and your access to observe ballot counting. The committee also has a legal hotline, online or at 1-800-336-4243, for issues that come up on Election Day.
- The state’s McClatchy newsrooms are sponsoring a live virtual event with experts, fact checkers and journalists discussing how to spot and address disinformation in local elections, at noon Oct. 20. [Register.]
- ProPublica’s Electionland project, which includes several North Carolina newsrooms, is tracking voting issues and inviting the public to report problems.
- Here’s a replay of a webinar discussion presented Monday by the Knight Foundation — Barriers to the Ballot Box — including a list of resources.
- PEN America has a tip sheet of five things to help you anticipate what voters need to understand the home stretch of this election.
- The Trust The Vote Project has an overview of potential problems that will bear watching.
- A suggestion: Lynn Walsh of Trusting News suggests letting readers know how you will cover the reporting of results — where you’ll get vote totals and why, so your audience knows they’re reliable; how you (or the news organizations you depend on) will declare winners; and what questions people have about your process.
- If you’d like to know more about how news organizations plan to report results and declare winners, there’s a PEN America webinar featuring officials from The AP, Fox and CNN today at 1:30 p.m. [Register.]
We‘ll update this section frequently. Keep up with how NC is covering the election via our weekly NC Local newsletter, edited by Eric Frederick.
- Aug. 26 Zoom recording, “What we’re learning about public records and open government in 2020,”
- NC Local takeaways from the Aug. 26 training, via NC Local News Workshop blog.
- Transparency in the time of COVID-19: Public Records Edition By Amanda Martin, Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, general counsel, NC Press Association. (Don’t miss the additional resources at the bottom.)
- What To Say When They Say No. Martin’s very useful list of scenarios.
- The NC Open Government Coalition / Sunshine Center at Elon, website and FAQ on COVID-19 and public records.
- The Open Government Guide from the state Attorney General’s Office.
- Law Enforcement Agency Recordings, a slide presentation by Mike Tadych.
- The NCPA legal hotline for members.
- North Carolina Bill Tracking from the National Freedom of Information Coalition.