Raleigh, N.C. — A little more than two weeks after a three-judge panel threw out a new state law combining oversight of state elections and ethics enforcement, leading Republican House members are pushing a revised version of the plan.
The House Elections and Finance committees on Tuesday approved a committee substitute for Senate Bill 68 less than 18 hours after Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, stripped out the bill's original half-page of language calling for student attendance recognition programs in local school districts and replaced it with 15 pages of policies and procedures for the proposed Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.
Lewis, the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, beat back an effort by Democratic members of the committee to delay voting on the new bill, saying the House needed to take a floor vote on it before lawmakers take time off for Easter late next week.
The General Assembly passed legislation in a special December session that merged the five-member State Board of Elections and the eight-member State Ethics Commission. Gov. Roy Cooper went to court to block the merger, saying the move stripped him of authority by giving lawmakers the power to appoint half of the new board – the governor has traditionally appointed all elections board members and put his or her party in the majority – and by requiring a super-majority of six votes to take any action.
The three-judge panel agreed with Cooper, ruling on March 17 that the governor would have a hard time ensuring elections are carried out fairly under the rules lawmakers set up.
The revised Senate Bill 68 would still merge the elections and ethics boards, but the governor would be able to appoint all members from nominations made by North Carolina's Republican and Democratic parties. The board would be split evenly between the two parties.
"It will allow all of the real and perceived functions of the board to be performed in as bipartisan a way as possible," Lewis said. "You don't get that when you favor one party over another."
A simple majority vote would be required for all elections-related decisions under the bill, but a super-majority would still be required in ethics cases.
As with the December law, county boards of elections would go from three members headed by a member of the governor's party to four members evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
Some committee members noted the rapid growth of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina and said they would be shut out of the elections oversight process under the bill.
Lewis said the proposal "is not a step backward" for unaffiliated voters, noting they currently have no way to get a seat on the State Board of Elections, but he would consider any ideas to expand participation on the board to include them.
Democrats on the committee protested the way the bill was being fast-tracked through the General Assembly, saying they didn't have enough time to review it or propose amendments and the public was given no notice to air any concerns about it to lawmakers.
"It's totally unfair and totally unwarranted," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham. "You're absolutely approaching this the wrong way."
The measure, which passed both committees on a voice vote with clear opposition, could be on the House floor as early as Wednesday.