@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Lawmakers go back to future with proposed changes to elections board

Posted December 11, 2018 6:42 p.m. EST
Updated December 11, 2018 7:09 p.m. EST

— After repeated lawsuits and court fights, Republican legislative leaders rolled out a proposal Tuesday to undo all of the changes they have made to the state elections board over the past two years.

The plan could be voted on as early as Wednesday in both the House and Senate.

Under the legislation, the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement would be split into two boards: a five-member elections board appointed by the governor that would likely have a three-person majority of his or her party and an eight-member ethics commission that would have four people appointed by the governor and four by lawmakers and would be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

The two boards and their composition would be the same as they were before 2017, when lawmakers merged them into an evenly divided eight-member board that they would appoint, arguing that no political party should have power over elections in North Carolina.

Gov. Roy Cooper sued over the change even before he took office, saying it left him with no control over the board, which would make it harder for him to ensure election laws were carried out fairly and properly.

The lawsuit went up to the Supreme Court, and lawmakers had to tweak the makeup of the board several times to satisfy court rulings, including giving all appointments back to Cooper – Democratic and Republican party officials nominate people from which he chooses – and adding a ninth member who isn't affiliated with either party.

Still, the three-judge panel that has handled the legal challenge from the beginning ruled in October that lawmakers overstepped their authority and threw out the changes made to the elections board. That ruling was supposed to take effect Wednesday, but the court pushed that back to Dec. 28 to allow the current nine-member board to continue its investigation of suspected voting irregularities in the 9th Congressional District election.

"This is simply our best attempt to honor, not just the request of the governor, but what the court has said," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said of the latest proposal.

Republican lawmakers last week called for Cooper to appoint an independent panel to investigate the 9th District race, saying they don't trust the elections board to handle it properly. But Cooper said the elections board is up to the task.

"Attempting to put in place a nonpartisan and more robust investigation without the cooperation of the governor would be counterproductive," said Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, adding that the proposed split, if approved, wouldn't take place until Jan. 31 to give more time for the ongoing investigation.

Because the 9th District investigation involved suspicious absentee voting patterns, the proposal directs the elections board to look into mail-in absentee voting statewide over the last five election cycles. It also would require that anyone who witnesses an absentee ballot to certify that they know the identity of the person who filled it out. That witness information would then be sent to the state board.

In addition to splitting the elections and ethics board in two, the legislation would allow the elections board to handle campaign finance investigations and would return lobbying enforcement to the Secretary of State's Office – as was the case before 2017.

Other changes included in the proposal would expand county elections boards to five members, delay the new state requirement that voters show photo identification at the polls until September and give lawmakers more time to draw voting district maps when ordered to do so by the courts.

County boards were expanded from three to four members in 2017, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Rather than kick someone off and revert to three-member boards, the measure would allow the governor to appoint a fifth person and name the chair, Lewis said.

Voters last month approved the voter ID requirement as an amendment to the state constitution, and lawmakers last week passed rules to implement it. Voter ID was supposed to begin with the municipal primaries in the spring, but Lewis said it would take longer to "turn the switch."

Lawmakers traditionally have been given a 14-day window to redraw voting maps in redistricting cases, but the measure wouldn't start the clock ticking on that 14-day period until the General Assembly reconvenes, if it is within 45 days of the court order.

Because the legislation is being considered as a conference report – a bill that passed the House and the Senate in different forms was gutted, and the elections board language was inserted – it requires only one vote in each chamber, and no amendments are allowed.