Featured photo by Carolyn de Berry

This article was first published by Carolina Public Press, story by Mehr Sher

In a move that sparked controversy and elicited responses from both sides of the political aisle, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 747 on Aug. 24, legislation designed to expand the power of poll watchers in the 2024 elections. However, it is expected that the Republican-led legislature will override the veto and make the bill into law.

Gov. Cooper described the changes proposed in Senate Bill 747 as “an all-out assault on the right to vote.” Under this bill, poll watchers at voting sites can have more mobility, record inside without capturing voters on camera, and accompany officials transporting ballot boxes. Observers, or poll watchers, are partisan individuals appointed by a political party to monitor and observe elections without disrupting the voting process.

Groups such as Common Cause NC applauded the veto, saying the bill would lead to increased voter intimidation if party-appointed poll watchers were given more powers. Jill Hopman, a New Hanover County Democratic poll watcher, worried it could lead to potential disruptions at the polls, while Josh Prizer, a Wake County Republican poll watcher, welcomed the changes in the observer bill.

Supporters of the bill, predominantly from the Republican Party, argue it increases transparency and voter confidence. With the Republican-led legislature poised to override the veto, legal challenges loom in North Carolina.

“The more transparency that we can give to our election process, the more confidence that we’re going to have and the more we can ensure voters that a free process is taking place,” said Prizer, a poll observer and the second vice chair of the Wake County Republican Party. Prizer was appointed by the state Republican Party as an at-large poll observer, or a poll observer who can visit and monitor multiple locations across precincts. He served as an at-large poll observer in the last three election cycles from 2020-22 in Wake County. 

Gov. Cooper described the changes proposed in Senate Bill 747 as “an all-out assault on the right to vote.” (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

The bill contains several election changes that, according to Gov. Cooper and local nonprofit organizations, are based on the Big Lie, or allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 elections. In a recent statement, N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore said that the governor mischaracterized the bill and claimed it “strengthens election integrity.”

In May, a State Board of Elections survey of county elections directors showed that there were violations in 15 counties in North Carolina, where poll watchers were found to be involved in voter intimidation and entering spaces where they weren’t allowed to look at confidential voting records. Some incidents described in the survey, for instance, involved an observer getting into a confrontation with a voter and another observer going into a voting booth.

Even before this bill, there was already evidence of voter intimidation, said Bob Phillips, a lobbyist and the executive director of Common Cause NC, a liberal-leaning, Raleigh-based nonprofit that had called for the bill to be vetoed. 

“It’s a solution in search of a problem,” Phillips said. “It gives the potential for voter intimidation, and that, in my mind, is an anti-democratic law.” 

Critics’ viewpoints

If Republicans override the veto, the state would be sued, wrote Marc E. Elias on X, formerly known as Twitter. He is the founder of Democracy Docket and a partner of Elias Law Group. Democracy Docket is a Washington, D.C.- based, progressive-leaning voting rights and media website. 

Hopman, the chair of the New Hanover County Democratic Party and a poll observer since 2015, said the new bill makes it more challenging to remove disruptive poll observers. 

“I think it makes it harder because the things that would get poll observers in trouble in the past inside the polling locations, such leaning too far into a conversation, standing too close or taking images, for instance, is now allowed,” Hopman said. 

Twenty-seven nonprofit organizations, including the Southern Coalition for Justice and Common Cause NC, sent a letter to Gov. Cooper urging him to veto the bill. 

The N.C. State Board of Elections defines voter intimidation as “any time a voter feels harassed or intimidated at a polling place.” The board designates voter intimidation as a crime and encourages voters to immediately notify an election official at their polling location.

The chair of the New Hanover County Democratic Party and a poll observer since 2015, said the new bill makes it more challenging to remove disruptive poll observers.  (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

Katelin Kaiser from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham said she knows about Elias’ plan to sue the state. She didn’t say if local groups would also go to court if the new voting bill became law. She did mention that changes to the role of poll watchers in the bill could result in more voter intimidation.

“This bill has given an opportunity to expand the powers of poll watchers,” said Kaiser.

Kaiser said that while Gov. Cooper’s veto may not change whether or not the bill becomes law, he has taken a stance, and it does speak to voters who have been historically disenfranchised.

Phillips of Common Cause NC agrees that such a law could pose more challenges, such as increased instances of voter intimidation.

“When some poll observers come in with a mindset that the election was fraudulent, and they have been trained in ways to look for things that they may say is a problem, that’s going to create other potential problems, including voter intimidation,” Phillips said. 

Some also worry that this bill will make it harder to remove poll watchers who are disrupting the voting process. 

Hopman said partisan poll watchers have too much power under the new bill and can interfere in matters that she thinks are outside their duties, such as getting within 5 feet of a voter having a conversation with an election official. 

“Since 2016, when our country became more divided and partisan, many poll observers have become another partisan tool,” she said. “There’s a lot more voter intimidation and curtailing of people’s right to vote.”

For instance, Hopman said she learned of several instances at polling locations in her county where Black voters were being told they were at the wrong polling site when they were at the correct ones.

“Partisan poll observers should be acting as referees to make sure that nothing nefarious is happening to protect voters’ interests,” she said. “The idea that we allow partisan people on either side to get involved in somebody’s private voting process, unless there is an absolute reason, is not the role of a poll observer.”

Proponents’ arguments 

Jay DeLancy, a former poll watcher who has served in more than a dozen elections and is the executive director of the Voter Integrity Project of NC, a Fuquay-Varina-based organization, said he believes the existing law governing poll observers is antiquated.

“It was assumed back in the horse-and-buggy days when you had to print the list and get on your horse and carry it over,” he said. “With this law, you can just email it 24 hours before,” DeLancy said of the proposed changes in the bill.

DeLancy said the new bill is a welcome change.

He said the bill is overdue, and he’s glad that it articulates the rights of observers because election officials were making observers fight for them, DeLancy said. 

DeLancy said that the changes to removing a poll observer give observers more due process in that chief judges now have to give a warning with a reasonable opportunity for observers to correct their behavior.

Dallas Woodhouse, the North Carolina executive director of the conservative nonprofit American Majority who formerly directed the N.C. Republican Party from 2015-19, said SB 747 clarifies what poll watchers can already do. 

“Suddenly, a system that works relatively well and has been relatively noncontroversial for decades would all of a sudden be a way to start intimidating voters is laughable,” Woodhouse said.

Supporters of the bill, predominantly from the Republican Party, argue it increases transparency and voter confidence. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

Prizer, who expects to serve as a Republican poll observer in the upcoming elections as well, said that the idea that voter intimidation will increase due to the changes in SB 747 is preposterous. “Instead of looking at election integrity from a bipartisan view, I think the governor is taking a party-line stance,” he said.

Prizer said that poll watchers from all political parties want to make sure voting is fair for everyone. This new bill will make it easier for them to do their job, no matter which party they support. 

“Any poll observer intimidating a voter is violating federal law, and we would join them in that prosecution,” said DeLancy, who trains poll observers. He agrees that it’s a crime but said, “The only challenge is who gets to define intimidation, and it’s written in civil rights law.

“If I’m listening to a conversation between a voter and an election official and someone says that if you are listening to this conversation, it is intimidating to me, that’s silly,” he said. DeLancy said that it would be unfair to have a poll observer removed just because somebody feels that his or another poll observer’s being there is intimidating.

Expert opinions 

Christopher Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University, said the changes proposed to poll watchers’ duties are not unique to the state and have occurred in statehouses nationally.

“What the bill does is, it codifies a lot of what was already in practice,” said the professor. “It gives poll watchers more authority to move about polling places and to have something to point to say that they are allowed to have more access than they had before.”

Cooper suggests that the current policies on voting in North Carolina are influenced by national trends, rather than being unique to the state. He also highlights the interconnectedness of politics across states and emphasizes that political ideas and policies are increasingly shared or replicated from one statehouse to another, reflecting broader national trends and narratives along party lines.

“The process has never been more politicized, more contentious or polarized than it is today,” he said.

Phillips said the legislation is a result of nationwide, Republican Party-led reforms to elections and the voting process. 

“This kind of legislation was not initiated from the people of North Carolina, maybe not even from the lawmakers, but more from people outside the state,” said Phillips. 

Cleta Mitchell, a conservative lawyer and Republican legal strategist who lives in North Carolina, could be involved with these changes, according to Phillips.

“It is disturbing when significant changes in law are being pushed by election deniers from outside the state,” he said.

Gov. Cooper also named Mitchell in his video address on his veto of SB 747. 

“Right now, legislative Republicans in North Carolina are pushing an all-out assault on the right to vote using the advice of Trump’s handpicked election denier, Cleta Mitchell, who was on the call trying to overturn the election in Georgia,” Gov. Cooper said. 

Mitchell was a key figure in the attempt to reverse the 2020 presidential election and runs the Election Integrity Network at the Conservative Partnership Institute, a coalition of conservative leaders and citizens.

Carolina Public Press reached out to Mitchell for comment through email and phone, but she did not directly respond to the questions. 

Bills to expand the powers of poll watchers were a response to the Big Lie, a reference to former President Trump’s debunked allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 elections. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

In 2021, state legislators introduced 40 bills in 20 states to expand the powers of poll watchers, according to the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice. These bills, the center found, were a response to the Big Lie, a reference to former President Trump’s debunked allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 elections. Of those 40 bills, 33 bills were aimed at giving poll watchers more authority to observe voters and elections officials less restrictions on their actions. 

This spring, the Institute for Southern Studies, in partnership with N.C. Voters for Clean Elections and several other organizations, published a blueprint of practices and policy proposals for North Carolina that addressed voter intimidation. The blueprint made several recommendations, such as improvements in voter registration systems and ballot access and claimed that “while some protections exist under federal and state law to protect North Carolinians from voter intimidation, more needs to be done.” 

The blueprint recommends passing comprehensive legislation to protect voters from intimidation and harassment, creating a private right of action for those who are affected by voter intimidation, and clearly defining voter intimidation in statute. 

Amid mixed reactions, North Carolina’s changes to poll watchers’ duties face criticism for potentially restricting voting access, with supporters arguing it ensures better election oversight. The impact on 2024 elections hinges on the bill’s enactment date, on Jan. 1, 2024. 


  • For a summary of Senate bill 747, click here
  • For the text of the latest version of Senate Bill 747, click here
  • To read Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, click here
  • For more on the Republican supermajority in the N.C. General Assembly, click here.
  • For the governor’s plan to veto another election-related bill, SB 749, click here.

Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Send an email to [email protected].

This article first appeared on Carolina Public Press and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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