@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Dozens of local elections boards paralyzed weeks before primaries

Posted March 7, 2018 6:49 p.m. EST
Updated March 7, 2018 7:10 p.m. EST

— With primaries two months away, North Carolina's election system remains in legal limbo, and a court order issued Monday scrambled the situation even more.

Twenty-five of the state's 100 counties, including Wake and Cumberland counties, have no functioning elections board to settle questions of polling locations and early voting hours.

Each of those counties has only two members on its elections board. They were allowed to function by a state Supreme Court order last summer while wrangling over the makeup of the state elections board played out in court.

That wrangling dates to a December 2016 law that merged the State Board of Elections and the State Ethics Commission into an eight-member panel evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. County boards, under that law, were expanded from three to four members, again evenly divided by party.

Gov. Roy Cooper, who took office two weeks after the law was passed, challenged the move in court, contending lawmakers had overstepped their authority.

The Supreme Court agreed with Cooper in January and sent the case back to a panel of three Superior Court judges who first heard the case to issue a final order.

The judges' order struck only the section of the law that dictated how members of the combined board would be appointed, however, leaving the rest of the law intact.

So there's a new state board structure, but no way to appoint anyone to it. The board has been vacant since last summer, as the courts allowed Cooper to put off naming new members until the legal case was resolved.

Because the state board appoints people to county election boards, no one can be appointed to those, either. Also, with a final ruling in the case, the Supreme Court's temporary order on two-person boards has expired.

"The ruling on Monday nullified that Supreme Court order, so those two-member boards can no longer act," said Patrick Gannon, spokesman for the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

Gannon said most county boards approved their early voting plans before the ruling. Early voting starts April 19, and absentee ballots start getting mailed out March 19.

Still, Wake County elections director Gary Sims said not having a board to make decisions could still cause problems with the May 8 primaries.

"Sometimes we'll have construction at a polling place or have to move for one reason or another, and that's important that we do make those changes if they're necessary. That does require a board to take action on that," Sims said.

With neither a local board nor a state board, any changes or challenges have to be decided by a Wake County Superior Court judge.

"We’re very lucky we’ve not had any challenges," Sims said. "There is a process in place in case there’s a problem."

Attorneys for Cooper on Tuesday appealed the order of the three-judge panel to the state Supreme Court to get the rest of the 2016 law thrown out, which would revert the state elections board to its traditional five-person format.

State officials also have asked the high court to renew the order allowing local two-member boards to act.

"No matter what happens with the law, somebody has to put these things in place and make it work," Sims said. "It does cause you to lose a little bit of hair sometimes, it seems like, but we just keep moving forward."

Lawmakers tried again last month to rewrite the laws governing state and county elections boards. That bill will become law March 15 without Cooper's signature, but it will likely be challenged in court as well.