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Elections changes giving NC legislators more power move back to the forefront

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Elections changes giving NC legislators more power move back to the forefront

Sep 13, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By Lynn Bonner
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Elections changes giving NC legislators more power moves back to the forefront
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(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Republicans’ multi-tiered reconstruction of elections in North Carolina moved ahead Wednesday with House committee approval of a bill remaking state and local elections administration that opponents see as a path toward reduced early voting and gridlock. 

The bill takes away the governor’s power to appoint members to the State Board of Elections and gives it to legislators. The State Board of Elections would grow from five to eight members. Four of the eight members would be appointed by Republican legislative leaders and four by Democratic leaders. Membership on the 100 county boards of election would be reduced from five to four, with two members appointed by Republican legislators and two by Democrats. 

The bill mirrors a proposed change to the state constitution that Republicans put on the ballot in 2018 and that voters soundly defeated. More than 61% voted no. 

The bill is part of a wave of state elections changes that has voters being asked to show photo ID before casting a ballot for the first time since 2016. A ruling by the state Supreme Court’s Republican majority earlier this year revived the state’s voter ID law. 

Last month, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that eliminates the three-day grace period for absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day, requires an absentee ballot signature verification pilot program and gives partisan observers more freedom to walk around polling places. Republicans are expected to override his veto. House Republicans have another bill on the burner that appears to allow the public to access voted ballots. 

Rep. Destin Hall, the House Rules Committee chairman, said the bill his committee approved Wednesday, Senate Bill 749, creates a system of “bipartisan buy-in” for big decisions. However, critics have warned that the measure sets the state board up for partisan-gridlocked votes that create a path for Republican legislators to appoint both the state elections director and the chairman of the state board. 

Partisan splits on the state and local boards could mean that counties would have only one early voting site and reduced early voting hours.

“It’s very obvious that this legislature now wants to hijack our independent state and county boards of elections,” said Melissa Price Kromm, director of NC Voters for Clean Elections. She chided legislators for planning to make hundreds of appointments to local boards. 

“You can’t even do the one job you were assigned to do by passing a state budget,” she said. The state budget is more than two months late, with Republicans in the House and Senate at an impasse over whether it should include casinos. 

Mark Swallow of Democracy Out Loud called the bill “a travesty.” 

“You’re setting a booby trap of our elections process forever,” Swallow said. 

The bill says that Democratic legislative leaders would get half the appointments to the state and local boards, but the outcome could be different in practice, said House Democratic leader Robert Reives. For example, Reives said, if he sought to appoint someone Republicans didn’t want, they could reject his choices until he picked the person they favored. This bill next goes to a vote of the full House. 

Led by election conspiracy theorists, some North Carolina legislators are pushing to allow public access to voted ballots that have voter identification removed and electronic records of ballot selections, called cast vote records. 

My Pillow CEO and prominent election denier Mike Lindell encouraged his followers to ask elections boards for cast vote records. They are not considered public record in North Carolina. 

House Bill 770, heard in the House Elections Law and Campaign Finance Reform Committee for the first time Tuesday, would make cast vote records available to anyone who files a public records request. 

The bill’s sponsors said Tuesday they only wanted to talk about the bill. They have changes they want to make before bringing it back for a vote. 

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, said she too wanted transparency, but was worried about “the potential loss of the confidentiality of the ballots.”

A summary of the bill prepared by legislative staff said the bill did not address how confidentiality would be maintained if a cast vote record from a precinct showed only one or a handful of voters in a contest. 

The State Board of Elections, in written feedback to the bill, said it was unclear if bill sponsors intended to allow the public to access voted ballots. In any case, the State Board advised against it, saying it would violate chain of custody and place a crushing burden on local boards of election, giving them no time to do their jobs of planning and administering elections. 

Letting people with partisan interests in election outcomes handle ballots is a bad idea, the State Board wrote. 

“Any compromise of those ballots by an interested member of the public could compromise the results of the election itself,” the memo said. “Even after election results are certified, any compromise of the voted ballots could be exploited by partisans who have an interest in sowing doubt about the results of a previous election that they do not like. In sum, if this were to become the law in North Carolina, the county boards of elections would be burdened with a monumental supervisory duty for whenever voted ballots are requested by members of the public, and there would be no limit to such requests. County boards, which are already overburdened, do not have the resources to oversee such activity.”

Ann Webb, policy director with Common Cause North Carolina said the group was not opposed to the bill in general concept, but was concerned about confidentiality. She encouraged the committee to consider changes that would improve election audits. 

Jim Womack, president of the North Carolina Election Integrity Team, said access to voted ballots and post-election audits builds public confidence in elections. The Election Integrity Team is the North Carolina offshoot of a group created by Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who helped former President Donald Trump try to overturn the 2020 election. 

Entities other than the Board of Elections, such as the state Auditor, should be allowed to perform post-election audits, Womack said.