Voters wait in line at the Brown Recreation Center polling place in Greensboro on the first day of early voting. (photo by Jordan Green)

President Trump has repeatedly urged his supporters to monitor polling places to detect fraud during the election, and concerns are mounting about aggressive conduct by designated Republican poll observers towards voters and election officials as early voting goes into its seventh day in Guilford County.

The Rev. Anthony Spearman, a Democratic member of the Guilford County Board of Elections who is also the president of the North Carolina NAACP, said that he has received multiple complaints about Republican poll observers failing to wear masks, raising concern among voters and election workers about exposure to coronavirus. He also said he received complaints about poll observers taking photos of poll books and telling voters how to vote.

“We have been concerned that there are going to be uprisings of intimidation, and that is occurring in the early-voting sites,” Spearman told his colleagues on the five-member elections board during a meeting on Tuesday afternoon.

Spearman said he received a report that two Republican poll observers at Brown Recreation Center, an early-voting site in a predominantly African-American area of southeast Greensboro, were not wearing masks on Oct. 16, the second day of early voting, and he said the election workers told him they were reluctant to return to work “because they felt their lives were in danger by the un-masked observers.”

Numbered Memo 2020-30, issued by North Carolina Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell on Oct. 9, clearly states in bold type: “To reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 at the polls, all observers shall wear masks when inside the voting enclosure.” Numbered memos are how the State Board of Elections communicates ground rules to local election staff in North Carolina’s 100 counties, but have become a point of contention with the Republican-controlled legislature.

Guilford County Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said he received reports about mask-less poll observers at Brown Recreation Center, along with Lewis Recreation Center on the north side of the city. Collicutt said he brought the issue to the attention of the Guilford County Republican Party chairman and was assured that it would be addressed. But Collicutt said no poll observers have been ejected from polling places or asked to not come back.

“I’ve got more calls about observers in this election than the entire 17 years I’ve been doing elections,” Collicutt told board members during the meeting on Tuesday.

Spearman also said he received a report that a Republican poll observer was standing behind poll workers at the check-in table and taking photos of the poll book, a roster of voters viewable on a laptop computer, at an early-voting site at NC A&T University, which is the largest historically Black university in the country.

Among a list of prohibited activities in Numbered Memo 2020-30 is “interfering with the privacy of the voters, including positioning themselves in such a way that they can view confidential voter information on poll books or laptops or standing in such a way that they can view the contents of ballots inserted into a tabulator.”

Collicutt told Triad City Beat in at least one instance he personally ordered a poll observer to move from behind a check-in table after receiving a complaint, after driving to the polling place and discretely letting himself in through a backdoor.

Spearman said the same poll observer who was taking photos of poll books at A&T was also observed intimidating voters at the curbside voting station and “telling them to vote ‘the right way.’” Spearman said volunteers with the voter engagement organization You Can Vote described the poll observer as “quite a bully.”

David Gleeson, the chairman of the Guilford County Republican Party, could not be reached for comment for this story.

TCB has previously reported on a Republican poll observer who scrutinized an 18-year-old Latinx voter at the UNCG polling place on the first day of early voting in what Siembra NC described as a kind of “voter intimidation,” albeit on the level of “amateur hour.”

“I am infuriated at some of the things that are happening at these polling sites,” said Spearman, who is the sole Black person on the five-member board. “And I think that we need to step up the pace or have some persons to show up there on a regular basis to monitor what is truly going on, and report truly what is going on. I’m going to be out there, and I’m going to report freely and truly.”

Despite the reports of intimidation and harassment, turnout for early voting in Guilford County and across the state has wildly exceeded expectations.

On Tuesday, the number of people in Guilford County — the state’s third most populous — voting by absentee ballot or early voting crossed the 100,000 mark.

“That’s pretty significant,” Collicutt said. “With 380,000 registered voters, to already have 100,000 voting, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”

Guilford County saw the heaviest turnout on the first day of early voting, with about 17,000 voters, but volume has remained steady, with daily totals through Monday ranging from 9,000 to 15,000.

“If we keep up the pace of what we’ve done for these five days, it’ll be hard because we’ll run out of voters eventually, when you combine what we’re doing with the absentee by mail,” Collicutt said. “I don’t know what this week is going to look like or next week, but we have really shot out hard with our voters.”

Elections staff fed absentee ballots into two tabulating machines in an ad hoc workspace commandeered from a former register of deeds vault on the first floor of the new Guilford County Courthouse on Tuesday. The board approved 8,134 civilian new civilian absentee ballots and 105 overseas and military ballots for processing. The machines counted the ballots, Collicutt said, and would be able to provide an immediate result on election night.

While local election staffs across the state scramble to administer early voting, they’re also having to address a backlog of absentee ballots set aside because of deficiencies. The State Board of Elections just gave local elections offices permission to tackle the deficient ballots on Monday, following a recent court decision resolving disputes between the Republican-controlled legislature, Democrat-controlled executive branch and voting rights groups.

“What we’ve been waiting for has occurred and we’ve got the memo from the State Board of Elections on how to handle the ballots that had deficiencies,” Collicutt said. “I think it’s fairly clear what the state is telling us to do. If a ballot is missing the witness or assistant signature, then that is one that we will spoil and reissue a new ballot to with some correspondence. Anything else really that can go wrong on this envelope we’re told to send the cure certification.”

Guilford County has 659 deficient absentee ballots — the highest of any county in the state — according to data maintained by Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida. McDonald’s research shows that African-American voters in Guilford County are more than three times more likely to have deficiencies in their absentee ballots than white voters. The disparity is even wider statewide, with Black voters almost four times more likely to have deficiencies.

Collicutt said his staff has already sorted the deficient absentees between those that must be spoiled because they are missing a signature from a witness or assistant, and those that can be “cured” by sending an affidavit to the voter. In the case of spoiled ballots, elections staff will send out a new ballot with the notification, while voters will be able to fix less serious deficiencies by signing and returning affidavits. Collicutt said he plans to start sending out the letters on Wednesday and will bring in an evening crew with the expectation of completing the task by Friday.

Still, the clock is ticking, with only 14 days for voters to receive notification and return new ballots or affidavits through the mail. Carolyn Bunker, a Democratic member of the Guilford County Board of Elections, said she is personally telling voters who discover through the online BallotTrax tool that their absentee ballots have not been counted to just vote in person during early voting if at all possible.

Absentee ballots are shaping up to become the focal point of partisan litigation if the result of the presidential contest and other important races are at all close in North Carolina. On Oct. 16, the North Carolina Republican Party formally issued a request to the Guilford County Board of Elections for the opportunity to inspect all absentee ballot container-return envelopes, which include voter names and other vital information, as well as the total number of “double-ballots” encountered by elections staff from absentee votes.

The State Board of Elections has issued an additional piece of guidance that is galling to Republican officials.

Numbered Memo 2020-22 extends the deadline for county boards to receive absentee ballots up to nine days after Election Day as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day. President Trump has repeatedly suggested in tweets and other statements that the vote count should be halted after Election Day, and North Carolina Republicans have already fought the nine-day extension in the courts. Numbered Memo 2020-22 was originally issued by state Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell on Sept. 22, and then was reissued on Monday.

Republican lawyers have previously argued that the State Board of Elections is usurping the role of the legislature through the numbered memos. Collicutt said that in previous elections absentee ballots have only been accepted three days after Election Day and acknowledged that’s the deadline currently set by statute.

Kathryn Lindley, a Republican member of the Guilford County Board of Elections, pointedly noted the issue.

“So, the State Board changed the statute?” she asked. “The statute says three days.”

But late Tuesday, a federal court issued an order backing the NC Board of Elections’ decision. The order from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals says “everyone must submit their ballot by the same date,” adding that “the extension merely allows more lawfully cast ballots to be counted, in the event there are any delays precipitated by an avalanche of mail-in ballots.”

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