This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch. 

As the Wake County Board of Elections neared the end of its first tally of mail-in ballots last week, Marian Lewin rose from her seat in the audience to ask about the totals.  

How many ballots were approved? Were any “spoiled,” requiring ballots be reissued? 

Lewin, first vice-president of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, is committed to watching Wake election board actions as part of the organization’s plan to keep an eye on local boards statewide to make sure no legitimate ballots end up in the ‘reject’ pile.  

The League wants to recruit volunteers who will report on ballot counts, challenges, and rejections. 

This election season is like no other, operating under the cloud of widespread disinformation that grew from the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Self-appointed election enforcers are preparing to challenge ballots. Voting rights advocates are on high alert.  

State Republicans wanted elections officials to be able to question mail-in ballots based on a comparison of witness and voter signatures  with voter registration cards. That request for signature verification was rejected, but there’s a worry the request created an atmosphere in which election board members will raise unwarranted suspicions. The pressure might filter to elections staff, Lewin said, resulting in more ballot rejections. Local election boards meet periodically before Election Day to examine absentee ballot envelopes and count how many approved ballots they’ve received. Votes aren’t counted until Election Day. 

The League wants volunteers to observe election boards in all counties, and particularly in places such as Surry and Carteret, where election deniers are active and vocal.  

It’s important to be a present to support voting rights, Lewin said, and “communicate to communities, you can trust your ballot.”

Right-wing group promises voter challenges

Matt Braynard is also looking for volunteers too, but he wants people who are ready to challenge ballots based on lists he’s providing.  

Braynard, executive director of the far-right group Look Ahead America, has complied lists of voters in nine states, including North Carolina, where he says registrants have moved out of state. Eight of the nine states where LAA is looking for volunteers to challenge ballots have close U.S. Senate elections.  

In an interview, Braynard said he matched North Carolina’s voter list against the U.S. Postal Service national change of address database where people indicated their moves were permanent. Braynard is also known for organizing support for January 6 insurrectionists

“We do have quite a few folks on our email list in North Carolina,” he said. “They’re starting to request county-level data from us, with instructions on how to challenge a ballot.” 

Braynard defended the accuracy of his database matching methods, but a trio of political scientists said in a critique published last year by the conservative Hoover Institution that matching the postal service database against voters could not distinguish fraud from legitimate ballots.  

Look Ahead America used the same technique in Georgia after the 2020 election to cast doubt on the outcome of the presidential vote after President Donald Trump’s false allegations of fraud. 

According to the political scientists, many of the people flagged for moving out of state may have been students who voted absentee or people who left Georgia temporarily for work or to care for sick relatives. 

“We conclude that the methodology employed in the Georgia Report to detect illegal, out of-state voting cannot establish any conclusive cases of fraud, and is likely to overstate the rate of this form of fraud,” they wrote. “Establishing that individuals moved out of Georgia according to the National Change of Address database and subsequently voted in Georgia is not sufficient to establish fraud; many of these individuals may have not actually left the state until after the election, left the state temporarily, or left but returned before the election. The Report’s methodology is fundamentally incapable of distinguishing these legitimate cases from supposed fraud.” 

The voting rights group Democracy North Carolina is monitoring the election denier movement and tracking disinformation cycles, said Joselle Torres, the organization’s communications manager. 

Another election denier tactic is to look for “phantom voters” through online searches of residential addresses, she said.  

“The purpose of disinformation is to cause chaos, voter confusion and build distrust in our system,” she said. “This has been building since the January 6th insurrection. It’s a coordinated attack to undermine trust in our election system.”

Democracy NC organized a disinformation monitoring group that it calls a “Truth Team” to push back on “disinformation, misinformation and mal-information” through the end of the canvass, the date when the State Board of Elections certifies results.  

Election officials prepare, express optimism that things will run smoothly

The state Board of Elections sought to implement strengthened restrictions on the partisan election observers who watch interactions between poll workers and voters in time for the start of early voting on Oct. 20, but the state’s Rules Review Commission rejected the revised rules.  

In response to a survey, 15 local elections directors reported instances during which poll observers were disruptive during the primaries: talking to voters or poll workers, trying to take video, and even following elections officials in their cars.  

Local elections directors said in interviews over the last week that they’ve built relationships with the Republican and Democratic leaders in their counties, and don’t expect problems with poll observers. 

“We have identified our concerns with both local parties,” said Michael Dickerson, Mecklenburg County elections director. “Both are tremendously responsive. We’ve worked hard with both of them. We’ve been encouraging them to talk to observers and hope everything works well. We have open communications with anyone. Everybody knows what they can and cannot do. I don’t anticipate any issue. You always prepare for everything.” 

An August statewide conference for elections officials included a session on de-escalation skills and building relationships with law enforcement.  

The state Board of Elections is also publishing a downloadable pocket guide for law enforcement with basics on election law, said Patrick Gannon, elections board spokesman.  

A 2020 election memo from state elections director Karen Brinson Bell says law enforcement should not be stationed at polling places but should be called if disruptions are spinning out of control.  

The memo also lists eight prohibited acts. Among them: voter challenges “made indiscriminately or based on speculation,” and intimidating chief judges or other elections officials.

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