Democrats and election experts warn the changes risk creating dysfunction in 2024, with Gov. Roy Cooper saying they “could condemn our state’s elections to gridlock and significantly limit early voting.”
The legislation, he said in his veto of the bill last month, “also creates a serious risk that Republican lawmakers or courts will be empowered to change the results of an election if they do not like not the winner.”
Republicans say the bill helps ensure elections are run fairly by creating bipartisan election commissions that will remove politics from the process.
“When it comes to agencies doing their jobs, politics shouldn’t be a part of it,” House Speaker Tim Moore (R) said during a recent podcast appearance.
The Republicans tried for years to remake the state election board but faced obstacles, including court rulings and voter rejection. Their three-fifths majority in the state legislature now gives them the power to override vetoes, which they did Tuesday in the state Senate by a vote of 30 to 19 and in the House by a vote of 72 against 44. Litigation is almost certain to follow.
Currently, state and county election boards are controlled by the governor’s party, meaning that in recent years they have been run by Democrats. Under the GOP legislation, state lawmakers will appoint boards made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.
The legislation does not specify how councils will resolve most impasses. Some Republicans said the courts will have to determine what to do if the state election board fails to certify an election because Republicans and Democrats disagree.
“There is a lot of uncertainty about the future of the relationship,” said Christopher Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “This kind of confusion will not contribute to trust in the system. »
Cooper, who is no relation to the governor, said North Carolina voters will see a new voting landscape next year because of decisions made in recent months. They will have new legislative and congressional districts, a new voter ID law, new deadlines for absentee voting and, in some places, new early voting sites.
“That represents a lot of change,” he said. “And communicating some of that to citizens is going to be extremely difficult in any environment, especially in an environment like this.”
Anderson Clayton, chairwoman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said the measure posed a “serious threat” that would limit voting options on college campuses and in major cities. That would create long lines that would deter some voters, she said.
“No one wants to wait in line to vote,” she said. “It’s not something that really encourages people to believe that a process works and that something is effective.”
Moore, the House speaker, did not respond to interview requests but recently said in a podcast for the Spectrum News cable television network that bipartisan boards would foster cooperation.
“When it comes to administering our elections, it should be above reproach,” he said. “There should be no partisan advantage to one side or the other.”
In addition to the law governing election boards, Republican lawmakers overrode a veto of a bill that ended the extended deadline for submitting mail-in ballots and gave more power to partisan election observers. Republicans have the power to override vetoes because they gained a three-fifths majority in April when state Rep. Tricia Cotham abandoned her Democratic affiliation and became a Republican.
Republican lawmakers first sought to change the makeup of the state’s election board in 2016 with a law they passed after Cooper was elected governor, but before he was sworn in. When a court blocked the law, they passed a modified version that was struck down. by the North Carolina Supreme Court for violating the state constitution.
GOP lawmakers in 2018 asked voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution that would have reshaped the state election board. Voters rejected the idea with 62 percent of the vote.
Republicans last month passed their latest bill to change election boards. In Cooper’s veto of the measure, he alluded to former President Donald Trump’s actions after losing the 2020 election by arguing that the bill would make it easier for lawmakers or courts to attempt to overturn the voting results.
“This is a serious threat to our democracy, especially after the nation saw a presidential candidate attempt to force state officials to overturn his lost election result,” Cooper said at the time.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Newton (R) said during Tuesday’s debate that the measure is important because it makes election commissions “truly and literally bipartisan.”
“This structure favors neither party nor a single elected official and so the inherent fairness should help restore voter confidence,” he said.
State Sen. Natalie Murdock (D) disputed that assertion, saying the bill would likely limit voting opportunities.
“This bill was never about strengthening our elections,” she said during the hearing. “This is a power grab.”
Tuesday’s cancellation paves the way for the bill to come into force from January 1. Lawsuits are expected, but the makeup of the North Carolina Supreme Court has changed since it issued its 4-3 decision in 2018 overturning changes to the state’s election board. .
In last year’s elections, Republicans won a 5-2 majority on the state Supreme Court. In a matter of months, he reversed two major recent decisions, allowing the voter photo ID law to take effect and allowing Republican lawmakers to leverage legislative and congressional districts to their advantage.
THE Overriding the veto would result in the dissolution of the five-member state election board and its replacement with a new board, made up of eight equally divided members. If the board fails to select a president or hire an executive director, lawmakers will be able to choose who fills those positions.
This provision could end the tenure of current Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell. She has held the position since 2019, but has been criticized by some Republicans for relaxing mail-in voting rules during the coronavirus pandemic. The changes were part of a legal settlement approved by the election commission.
The state board is responsible for determining where to establish early voting sites when a county election board cannot unanimously agree on them. If the state board deadlocks on where to place them in a county, that county will only have one early voting site. Democrats fear Republicans will vote against early voting plans for urban counties with large Democratic populations, preventing them from getting multiple early voting sites.
The bill does not specify how blockages on other issues – such as certification of results – will be resolved. State Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger said in June that such disputes could be resolved in court, according to the News & Observer.
Megan Boler Bellamy, vice president of law and policy at the Voting Rights Lab, raised concerns about how the legislation could affect people’s perceptions of elections. Board impasse and partisan infighting over election administration risks harming public opinion of the election system, she said.
“This is enough damage to have serious implications for the confidence that every North Carolinian feels,” she said.
The other veto that lawmakers overrode would put in place a law requiring mail-in ballots to be returned to election officials before polls close on Election Day. Previously, mail-in ballots were counted provided they were postmarked by Election Day and received by election offices up to three days after Election Day.
In 2020, the three-day grace period allowed about 12,300 additional ballots to be counted, according to the state election commission. In 2022, approximately 8,600 ballots have been counted. Elections in North Carolina are often close, with one state Supreme Court race being decided in 2020 by fewer than 500 votes.
Trump won North Carolina by four points in 2016 and by less than two points in 2020. Both parties are making the state a top target in the 2024 presidential and gubernatorial races. Cooper is term limited and is not running for re-election.
The bill affecting mail-in voting also allows partisan poll watchers to freely move around polling places and listen in on conversations between voters and poll workers. Additionally, the bill prohibits private donations to fund election administration in response to donations of more than $400 million that Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated to groups that helped fund 2020 election expenses.
Critics have argued that it is unfair to let private groups decide how to allocate resources to run elections, because funding them could increase turnout for one side over the other. Since the 2020 election, two dozen states have banned, limited or regulated such donations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Another provision of this bill would void voters’ registration at polling places if a verification card mailed to them is returned as undeliverable. Previously, these voters retained their registration status until a second verification card was returned to them as undeliverable. Voto Latino filed a federal lawsuit seeking to invalidate that provision moments after lawmakers overrode the veto.