New elections board will face big decisions

The five new members of the State Board of Elections will have decisions to make about who will head the board's staff and whether a recently opened campaign finance investigation connected to top state leaders should continue.

Posted Updated
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Newly appointed members of the State Board of Elections say they will start their tenure Wednesday with no marching orders as to who should serve as their most senior staff member or how to pursue a high-profile campaign finance investigation.

Gov. Pat McCrory appointed five new members to the board Friday, sweeping out incumbents with decades of experience. Each governor makes his or her own appointments to the board, based on recommendations from the chairman of the Republican and Democratic parties. But a 20-year run of Democratic governors – Jim Hunt, Mike Easley and Bev Perdue – has led to stability among the boards' membership. 

Board terms last four years, and the current board's tenure expires Tuesday. 

The five-member state board is responsible for overseeing all elections in the state. Not only does it set policy and manage state and federal funding for elections administrations, it also serves as an appeals panel for decisions made by county boards of elections.

Members also oversee campaign finance investigations and can fine candidates who don't comply with the law or refer actions for prosecutions. Complaints first heard by the board have led to criminal findings against political figures like former House Speaker Jim Black, Gov. Mike Easley and Rep. Thomas Wright, all Democrats, and Republican Rep. Mike Decker.

The makeup of the board is determined by the party of the sitting governor. Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, has appointed three GOP members, including Josh Howard of Wake County. Maja Kricker of Chatham County and Joshua Malcolm of Robeson County will be the two Democrats.

"I didn't know I'd been nominated," said Kricker, who currently serves on the Chatham County Board of Elections. She said her first indication that she was in the running for the state board was an email from the governor's office late last week.

Among the new board's first decisions will be who will serve as executive director to the state board. Gary Bartlett has held the job for nearly 20 years, serving under boards appointed by Hunt, Easley, and Perdue. 

Bartlett said he has not received a firm indication one way or the other whether he will be asked to stay on either as director or in another capacity. He said he has offered to continue in his current post or another role.  

Howard declined to comment when asked if he had any conversations with fellow board members about who among them would chair the board and who should serve as executive director.

Rhonda Amoroso, a new board member who is chairman of the New Hanover County Republican Party, said the new members have not talked about who their staff might be. Asked if McCrory expressed ideas about the board's leadership or executive director, she said, "No, he has not."

Paul Foley, the third Republican appointee, is a lawyer from Winston-Salem who has served as general counsel to the state Republican Party. He said "it would be too early to tell" who might lead the board as chairman or serve as the head of the professional staff. "I'm not sure at this time."

Leadership changes expected

The current board will hold its last meeting Tuesday, and it is unlikely to take any action that would commit the new board to any future course.

"I think it would be inappropriate for us, on the way out the door, to direct the staff to do anything," said Chuck Winfree, a Republican member from Greensboro. 

Lawyers and others who work with the State Board of Elections quietly expressed reservations over the weekend about the turnover of all five board members and what is viewed as the likely replacement of Bartlett sometime this year, if not right away.

Multiple sources familiar with the new and old board said they would be surprised if Howard, the only new Republican member with experience on a county board of election, was not selected as chairman. 

The question of who might serve as director is less certain. Over the past three weeks, two names have circulated in political circles as possible candidates: Kim Westbrook Strach, the current deputy director for campaign finance, and Francis DeLuca, president of the conservative Civitas Institute.

Strach did not return a phone call seeking comment. DeLuca did not return an email seeking comment, and calls to the Civitas Institute were met with a busy signal Monday.

By law, the a new executive director could take his or her seat as soon as May 15. The director serves at the pleasure of the board, but it is expected any new hire would serve at least four years. The position pays $118,806 per year. 

Robin Hayes, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, was not available for a phone interview on Monday. In a written statement, he did not respond specifically to concerns about turnover in the board but said he had confidence in "an extremely qualified" group of GOP appointees. 

“Josh Howard, Paul Foley, and Rhonda Amoroso are decorated legal professionals and have a shared goal to responsibly administer the elections process and campaign finance disclosures in North Carolina," Hayes said. "Immediately after the election, we received lots of feedback and interest in the State Board of Elections appointments that were set to expire in April, and I couldn't have had more confidence in recommending Josh, Paul and Rhonda to serve as new members.”

Sweepstakes complaint still pending

Aside from appointing new leaders, one of the first decisions facing the newly appointed board will be whether to proceed with an investigation into campaign donations from owners of electronic sweepstakes companies. Those companies are pushing for legislation that would legalize the gambling-like games.

Current board members have said they were ready to direct the staff to pursue an investigation of whether top leaders such as McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger received corporate contributions from a sweepstakes software provider. 

"I think the staff is still conducting their review of the documents," Winfree said Monday. "I think the new board would be in a better position to make that call. I would encourage them to follow the evidence, wherever it leads."

New members interviewed Monday said they only knew what they had read in media reports about the matter and could not say whether they would pursue an investigation. 

Aside from campaign finance inquiries, incoming board members may be asked to implement new voting requirements over the next several years.

The state House has approved a measure that would require voters to show photo identification when they go to the polls. 

"I'm all about voter integrity," Amoroso said, using a buzz word familiar to those in the movement pushing for photo ID. Aside from that, she said she did not have a specific agenda. 

Kricker said that she too was watching the development of the photo ID requirement but was more concerned that it not end up blocking legitimate voters.

"I'm deeply concerned about it," Kricker said. "There are many older voters who do not have ... photo ID, and there are others who don't have photo ID."

Howard said he didn't want to lay out what priorities he may or may not have before speaking with other board members. 

"I wouldn't want to lay out an agenda at this stage," he said.

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