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Our view: The true threat to election integrity

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Poll worker Rod Back helps Lynn Parker with curbside voting Oct. 21 at Lewisville Library.

They say they’re concerned with “election integrity” — the leaders of organizations created in the last two years who have rallied and organized thousands of poll watchers across the country for this election cycle.

They include North Carolina lawyer and Trump supporter Cleta Mitchell, who heads the Election Integrity Network.

But there’s an undercurrent of risk coming from some participants that can’t be ignored. There’s a fear that some overzealous observers, expecting to find cheating at every turn, may become overly aggressive, even violent.

Judging from election officials’ own reports, the possibility doesn’t seem so farfetched.

They include reports of intimidation and friction during the May primary elections from officials across the state and nation.

They include Anne Risku, the election director in Wayne County, who had to tell a poll watcher to back off after she wedged herself between a voter and the machine the voter was using to cast his ballot. Risku reported 13 incidents involving Republican poll watchers to the state elections board.

They include two occasions on which Wayne County Chief Judge Susan Wiley was followed from a poll back to the Goldsboro elections office, about a 20-minute drive.

Poll watchers from broad swaths of the public are necessary; transparency is essential to ensuring that our elections are free and fair.

But when poll watchers are convinced that every suspicious motion is evidence of cheating, their reactions can be unpredictable.

At the very least, we’re likely to hear some very angry accusations — especially if a poll watcher sees something he or she doesn’t understand.

That shouldn’t be surprising. These new poll watchers have largely been recruited from those who still believe former President Trump’s Big Lie. That’s why they signed up — to prevent the next “steal.”

Even though there was no “steal” to start with.

To be clear, organizers of such groups insist that their motives are pure. “We are not a threat,” Mitchell told the Associated Press recently. “Unless you think elections that are conducted according to the rule of law are a threat. We train people to follow the law.”

But so many local elections officials reported poll watchers breaking rules during the May primary that state election officials recently issued a 12-page memo outlining the rules for observers.

Most pertinent for voters to know: Poll watchers can report concerns to supervisors, but they have no authority to interfere with voters or election workers. They’re not allowed to take photos or videos of people voting without the voters’ permission — and they’re not allowed to see anyone’s ballot or personal information.

Any feeling of interference or intimidation coming from a poll watcher — or a poll worker, for that matter — should immediately be reported to a site supervisor.

“We aren’t going to put up with it,” Wake County elections director Gary Sims told WRAL last week, speaking of election interference. “People are just going to be able to vote. Everybody’s going to get to vote their one ballot for this election, and people should not be harassed just to exercise their very right to vote.”

We agree. And we hope our fears are exaggerated.

But we’re in an era in which there seems to be no limit to how far some people will go to overturn an election result they dislike.

Despite the assurance of Republican election officials across the nation that the 2020 election was transparent and fair — including Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Arizona House Speaker Russell “Rusty” Bowers — Republican officials in 43 states introduced sweeping new voting laws, tightening their grip on when, where and how voting could be done — in the name of “election integrity.”

There’s not a single conspiracy theory about election fraud that hasn’t been credibly debunked — many by Trump’s own Department of Justice.

What more needs to be done? How tight and secure do election laws have to be — how many poll watchers have to be present, and how close to each voter’s screen — before the skeptics simply admit and accept that sometimes Democrats win? Is the childish claim of cheating going to just be the standard GOP response from now on?

We’ll see.

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