House Republicans revive elections board reforms deemed unconstitutional

Senate Bill 68 would combine boards, expand the State Board of Elections, but modify executive authorities to satisfy court ruling

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
The floor of theHouse of Representatives in the N.C. General Assembly. (file photo)

RALEIGH — The North Carolina General Assembly made further progress this week regarding confirmation proceedings of Gov. Roy Cooper’s cabinet choices. The N.C. Senate confirmed Dr. Mandy Cohen as secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and Machelle Sanders as secretary of the N.C. Department of Administration. Two other Cooper appointments, Michael Regan and Tony Copeland, nominees to lead the N.C. departments of Environmental Quality and Commerce, respectively, each cleared committees on their way to a full vote by the Senate.While the Senate’s authority to advise and consent to the governor’s cabinet appointments was recently upheld in court, another facet of the same lawsuit that was ruled unconstitutional, 2016 legislation reforming the State Board of Elections and Ethics Commission, has now re-emerged in the form of a bill modified by Republican lawmakers to satisfy constitutional questions raised by the judicial panel.”In this bill we have addressed the concerns of the three-judge panel and this is no longer a separation of powers issue as the court ruled because we’ve given the executive branch the power to appoint members of the board,” said bill sponsor and House Rules Chairman Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett). “Also we have acknowledged and overcome the concern the court raised about the operation of the board by requiring only a simple majority of the board to take action on all routine matters pertaining to the administration of elections.”Senate Bill 68, passed by the House on Thursday evening, combines the functions of elections, campaign finance, lobbying enforcement and ethics into one body, but it is the changes to the State Board of Elections in particular that have drawn criticism from Democrats and Cooper.”This week’s legislation attempting to seize control of elections boards is the latest GOP attempt to curtail voting rights in North Carolina — and I intend to fight it,” stated Cooper in a published response to the new bill. “This latest bill comes after Republicans have already been ruled out of bounds on this issue. Their first attempt to gain control of elections boards through a law passed in December was recently found unconstitutional. And now the legislature is at it again, simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”The governor’s comments and a recent tendency toward litigiousness between the divided branches of state government suggest that, should the bill pass both chambers and subsequently overcome a likely veto, Cooper will again bring suit against the Republican legislature to block the measure.Under the proposal, the board expands from five to eight members, evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans, and gives the governor sole appointment authority. To make the appointments, the governor will be provided lists of candidates from the two largest state political parties from which he will make selections.During a lengthy floor debate on the issue Thursday, House Democrats continued a separation of powers argument and contested the lack of independent voter representation in the proposed board structure.”It appears to me that some in the legislature are very determined to do whatever they can to limit the executive branches power,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Wake). Jackson went on to argue that an evenly split board would invite gridlock when considering complaints similar to what he said plagues the Federal Elections Commission.”We’re just setting this up to deadlock and fail, and therefore we’re going to be limiting people’s right to vote,” said Jackson.A third contention from House Democrats was that the structure disenfranchised independent voters, asserting the nearly 40 percent of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina would lack representation under the proposal.House Republicans, however, were quick to point out that the current structure of boards of elections does not have mechanisms for including unaffiliated voters as members either, and similar to S.B. 68 the governor makes appointments to the state board selecting from lists provided by the state Republican and Democratic parties. Beyond the elections board structure, Lewis also described how other states have combined ethics, lobbying and elections functions similar to S.B. 68.”No less than eight states combined all three,” said Lewis. “Fifteen states combine elections and lobbying or ethics. … No other state, none of the other 50, separate them the way we do.”The measure passed the House Thursday with less than a veto-proof majority and will be considered in the Senate next week.