RALEIGH — The State Board of Elections has told local elections officials not to have uniformed police or sheriff's deputies at polling places when early voting starts Thursday.
The board says some voters would be intimidated by the sight of a law enforcement officer in uniform outside a polling place.
Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the state elections board, sent a memo to county boards last week that said, in part, it is not "appropriate or permissible for law enforcement to be stationed at a voting place."
"In the event a county board must utilize law enforcement for parking and traffic issues at a voting site, officers must be in plain clothes," the memo says. "Law enforcement may periodically drive by a voting site in the event heightened security is needed."
The directive drew scorn from Republicans, who called it dangerous and illegal. The three Republicans who head the state Senate Elections Committee issued a joint statement condemning the policy from the elections board that is controlled by Democrats.
"We know a thing or two about election law," state Sens. Ralph Hise, Warren Daniel and Paul Newton wrote. "Gov. Cooper's Board of Elections is not a law enforcement agency and has no authority to direct police action. The Board must rescind yet another lawless memorandum that undermines election security."
They weren't alone in their condemnation.
Tim Wigginton, a spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party, called the directive "simply an impractical, dangerous attempt to appease the radical left," and said it should be reversed.
Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the State Board of Elections, said the position on law enforcement at the polls is nothing new and is consistent with the stance taken by previous boards under different administrations.
"The State Board's guidance for numerous years has been that county boards shall not have law enforcement monitoring at voting sites," Gannon wrote in an email. "The memo does not limit the ability of law enforcement to respond to calls, in uniform or otherwise."
The ban on stationing law enforcement at the polls was included in Bell's nine-page memo on how to ensure voters "enjoy a safe environment that is free from intimidation." It includes guidelines for protecting a 50-foot buffer zone around polling places and ensuring voters have free access to the polls.
The board doesn't seek to ban law enforcement from polling places altogether. The memo instructs those in charge of a polling place to contact the "county board of elections and/or law enforcement" if for some reason they can't maintain unobstructed access.
"Contact local law enforcement as soon as a situation begins to escalate beyond the ability of election officials to respond and control the situation," the memo says.
The N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police advised its members that if they're called to a polling place they should follow their own policies, since the State Board of Elections "can not dictate police protocol."
"On-duty uniformed officers responding to calls for service or requests to direct traffic at or near a polling site should follow departmental policies," Roxboro Police Chief David Hess, the association's president, said in a memo. "Chiefs may consider working with local elections boards to clarify departmental policies to help maintain voting site safety and security."
The three Senate elections committee members say the state board may have authority over what goes on within 50 feet of the polls but say it has no power to control what happens outside that buffer.
But the state elections board disagrees.
It says while local boards must be mindful of First Amendment rights to free speech, state and federal laws forbid "interference with the right of a voter to participate in an election," whether inside or outside the buffer zone.
"Interference can take many forms," the board writes in its memo.
Gannon, the spokesman, said that based on complaints in previous elections it's clear some voters feel intimidated by the presence of police.
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