GOLDSBORO, N.C. – The situation with the poll watcher had gotten so bad that Anne Risku, the election director in North Carolina's Wayne County, had to intervene via speakerphone.
“You need to back off!” Risku recalled hollering after the woman wedged herself between a voter and the machine where the voter was trying to cast his ballot at a precinct about 60 miles southeast of Raleigh.
The man eventually was able to vote, but the incident was one of several Risku cited from the May primary that made her worry about a wave of newly aggressive poll watchers. Many have spent the past two years steeped in lies about the accuracy of the 2020 election.
Those fears led the North Carolina State Board of Elections in August to tighten rules governing poll watchers. But the state's rules review board, appointed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, blocked the new poll watcher regulations in late September, leaving election officials such as Risku without additional tools to control behavior on Election Day, Nov. 8.
"It becomes complete babysitting,” Risku said in an interview. “The back and forth for the precinct officials, having somebody constantly on you for every little thing that you do — not because you’re doing it wrong, but because they don’t agree with what you’re doing.”
Poll watchers have traditionally been an essential element of electoral transparency, the eyes and ears for the two major political parties who help ensure that the actual mechanics of voting are administered fairly and accurately. But election officials fear that a surge of conspiracy believers are signing up for those positions this year and are being trained by others who have propagated the lie spread by former President Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 presidential election was riddled with fraud.
In Michigan, groups that have spread falsehoods about that race are recruiting poll watchers. In Nevada, the Republican Party's nominee for secretary of state, Jim Marchant, denies President Joe Biden's 2020 victory and was a featured speaker at a party poll watcher training.
Cleta Mitchell, a prominent conservative lawyer and North Carolina resident, is running a group recruiting poll watchers and workers in eight swing states. Mitchell was on the phone with Trump when the then-president called Georgia’s secretary of state in January 2021 and asked that official to “find” enough votes for Trump to be declared the state’s winner.
Chris Harvey, who was Georgia's election director in 2020 when Trump claimed the election was being stolen from him, recalled how swarms of Trump backers came as self-appointed poll watchers to observe the state's manual recounts, harassing election workers and disrupting the process. Harvey fears a repeat this year.
“The whole tension that we're expecting to see at polling places is something we're talking to election officials about, something we're talking to law enforcement about,” said Harvey, who is advising a group of election officials and law enforcement before November.
The laws governing poll watchers vary from state to state. Their role is generally to observe, question any deviations from required procedure and, in some states, lodge formal complaints or provide testimony for objections filed in court.
The worries this year are similar to those during the 2020 election, when Trump began railing against mail voting and the Republican National Committee launched its first national operation in decades. It had recently been freed from a consent decree that limited its poll watching operation after it previously was found to have targeted Black and Latino voters. But voting went smoothly that November.
Mitchell said her organization, the Election Integrity Network, is just trying to ensure that everyone follows the law.
“We are not a threat,” she told The Associated Press during a text message exchange. “Unless you think elections that are conducted according to the rule of law are a threat. We train people to follow the law.”
Risku said there were issues with poll watchers from both parties during the primary in May. But of the 13 incidents she reported to the North Carolina board from Wayne County, all involved Republicans.
In addition to the poll watcher who had to be ejected, Risku said another Republican poll watcher in her district waited after hours in the parking lot of the Mount Olive Train Depot early voting site until Chief Judge Susan Wiley began carrying boxes of marked ballots to her car.
On two occasions, the man tried to follow her back to the elections office in Goldsboro, about a 20-minute drive.
Recognizing that the job has become “a scary ordeal” in the last year, Risku said she has stepped up security before November and offered raises to entice precinct officials to stay. She expects many won’t return after this year.
The North Carolina GOP chairman, Michael Whatley, said that's not what the party is teaching its poll watchers.
“What we saw in terms of some of the activities that were at play may have been coming from Republicans but were not things that we have been teaching people in our training sessions,” Whatley said. "What we want to do is make sure that we have people that are in the room that are going to be very respectful of the election officials at all times, be very respectful of the voters at all times and, if they see issues, then report them in.”
He has declined to allow reporters to attend the training sessions, which he said have trained 7,000 potential poll watchers so far this year.
As in many states, poll watchers are only permitted in North Carolina if they have been designated by the major parties. But in Michigan, organizations that register with local election offices also can provide poll watchers. A coalition of groups that have questioned the 2020 election are scrambling to get as many of their members in place as possible in the politically critical state.
“The best I can do is put a whole bunch of eyeballs on it to make sure that anything that doesn't look right gets a further look,” said Sandy Kiesel, executive director of the Michigan Election Integrity Fund and Force, part of a coalition that recruited 5,000 poll watchers for the state's August primary.
Kiesel said several of her coalition's poll watchers and poll challengers — Michigan law allows one person to observe and another person to formally lodge challenges at precincts — were prevented from observing or escorted out of polling places in August.
Michigan election officials are bracing for more confrontations in November. Patrick Colbeck, a former Republican state senator and prominent election conspiracy theorist who is part of Kiesel's coalition, announced this past week that a comprehensive fall push to scrutinize every aspect of voting would be called “Operation Overwatch.”
“They are talking about intimidating people who have the right to vote,” said Barb Byrum, clerk of Michigan's Ingham County, which includes Lansing, the state capital.
In a sign of the importance the state's Republicans place on poll watchers, the GOP-controlled Legislature last week agreed to let election offices throughout Michigan start processing mailed ballots two days before Election Day — something most states with mail voting allow long before then — but only if they allow poll watchers to observe. The ballots are not actually counted until Election Day.
In Texas, a new law allows every candidate to assign up to two poll watchers, raising the potential that observers could pack polling locations, particularly around big cities such as Dallas and Houston where ballots are the longest.
According to records from the secretary of state's office, more than 900 people in Texas already had received poll watching certification in the three weeks after the state opened required training on Sept. 1.
Riccardi reported from Denver. Associated Press writers Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan, Gabe Stern in Reno, Nevada, and Paul Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.