There is a lot to be concerned about in North Carolina’s omnibus elections bill, which voting rights advocates have dubbed a “Monster Law.” Indeed, HB 589 — which has been passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and awaits Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature — is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from all the worst election laws found across the country. There’s a voter ID provision that invalidates college IDs, as seen in Texas; shrinking early voting periods, which Florida recently apologized for; and dubious “free ID” provisions that haven’t worked in Pennsylvania. Election law experts have found legal problems with many provisions, and the state’s attorney general also warned of its shaky legal standing. Among the most troubling parts of the law are provisions that expand the powers of poll observers and election challengers. We have seen in Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania what happens when states don’t rein in the activities of “voter vigilantes” who comb through voter files looking to have people purged, and who provide false election information to voters under the guise of “observing.” The Texas-based group True the Vote has created a cottage industry out of such vigilantism, and they’ve inspired the North Carolina group Voter Integrity Project (VIP-NC) to do the same. Elections expert Daniel Smith of the University of Florida has called such efforts the “privatization of voter suppression.”
Before HB 589, two poll observers appointed from each political party were allowed per voting location, and they had to be registered voters in the county where they’re assigned. Under the new law, an additional 10 “at-large observers” are free to roam around a county’s poll locations and can join the observer duos already assigned to each place. The problem with this is that poll watchers can loom overzealously over voters, spinning suspicion and causing other problems for voters.
In last November’s elections, poll monitors in Pennsylvania were reportedly sending voters to the wrong lines and precincts. In Colorado, a poll watcher was recorded phoning in suspicions about a precinct with a high concentration of people of color. And in Florida, poll watchers threatened to report black voters who took bottles of water from NAACP members and fish sandwiches from church volunteers as they waited in long lines under punishing heat.
HB 589 also has provisions that allow for more challenges of voters before they even get to the voting line. North Carolina already has a law that allows for any registered voter to challenge another voter from the same voting precinct. Under the new law, a challenger can be from anywhere in the county. But there were already problems under the existing law. Last year, for example, VIP-NC rummaged through voter registration files in Wake County, N.C. and came up with a list of more than 500 people whose registrations it challenged unsuccessfully. Most were voters of color.