North Carolina legislature gives final OK to election board changes, with Governor’s veto to follow

The North Carolina General Assembly gave final approval on Friday to Republican-backed legislation that would shift control of the State Board of Elections away from the governor and give it to lawmakers as the 2024 elections get underway.

With the Senate recording a party-line vote to accept a consensus GOP measure after the House completed a similar vote late Thursday night, the bill now heads to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Cooper already has promised to veto it, saying it’s a GOP power play that would result in stalemates on the proposed new board, potentially limiting access to early in-person voting and giving more opportunity to the General Assembly and courts to settle contested elections.

Republicans say the new structure will result in more consensus building on election matters, building voter confidence. But it also could result in the current state elections executive director being ousted from her job weeks before key primary elections are held in March in the nation’s ninth-largest state.

Republicans hold narrow veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, so a successful override is likely next month. GOP lawmakers have tried since 2016 to erode the Governor’s power over elections, but those efforts have been struck down by courts or rejected by voters. More litigation could be ahead if it gets enacted. Unlike recent years, the state Supreme Court now has a majority of Republican justices.

The changes would begin Jan. 1 — sooner than a July 1 start that was contained in a version of the measure approved by the House on Tuesday. But Senate Republicans balked at having the changes start next summer.

“July 1, 2024, would be in the middle of the election for 2024. It’s not a good time for us to make that change,” Senate leader Phil Berger said this week.

The state’s 7.3 million registered voters will cast ballots this year for President, Governor and scores of other positions. 2024 also will provide the chief test for election officials administering new photo voter identification requirements, which are starting this fall during municipal elections.

Under the bill, the House speaker, the Senate leader and the minority party leaders in each chamber each would pick two seats on the proposed eight-member election board — likely giving Democrats and Republicans four positions apiece. The current board appointment process, in which the Governor chooses the five members, usually gives the Governor’s party a 3-2 majority.

The same 3-2 split also happens on county boards, which under the bill also would now be reduced to four seats, with legislative leaders each naming one appointee. The approved bill says if the new state board can’t choose an executive director by Jan. 10, then Berger would choose.

Current Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell, who was hired by the board in 2019, is widely respected among colleagues nationally. But Republican legislators were unhappy with her for her role in a 2020 legal settlement as voting began that eased some rules for mailed ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic beyond what state law permitted. She could be retained by the new board.

After Friday’s vote, Berger said that settlement, which also involved Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, is one of the reasons Democrats are upset with the bill because they’ll “no longer have the ability to change the rules while the game is being played.”

Stein, who is running for Governor in 2024, said that with the bill GOP legislators “are undermining our democracy and jeopardizing early voting with their elections power grab.”

Another election bill that Cooper vetoed last month and is awaiting override votes in the legislature would end a grace period for voting by mail and allow partisan poll observers to move about voting locations.

These bills “take our election system to a more unstable place, not a more stable, predictable one,” Democratic Sen. Julie Mayfield said during Friday’s debate.

Former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was riddled with fraud have prompted a wave of GOP election laws and administrative overhauls as he mounts his campaign to take back the White House.

North Carolina was Trump’s narrowest victory in 2020 and is expected to be a battleground next year. Sponsors of the bills that have reached Cooper’s desk have avoided talk about Trump’s accusations.

In another battleground state last week, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate voted to remove the state’s top elections official. Democrats say the Senate vote was illegitimate, and the state’s Democratic Attorney General has sue to challenge that vote.

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