The proposed state constitutional amendment that would reconfigure the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement presents a hard question: What does it reflect more, dishonesty or incompetence?
Let’s start with incompetence. The official ballot language reads: “Constitutional amendment to establish an eight-member Bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections Enforcement in the Constitution to administer ethics and elections law.”
The language sloppily transposes the name of the current state board and would create “in the constitution” a new board charged with “elections enforcement,” whatever that is. If the amendment passes, perhaps the mistake can be fixed with legislation. Otherwise the state board will have to order new stationery and signage while it figures out how it will enforce elections.
The flaw in the language reflects the haste with which the amendment was drawn and jammed onto the ballot through party line votes. It was incompetent legislating, a hallmark of a legislature that has passed more than a dozen laws that have been found to be unconstitutional, including the 2017 law that currently governs the Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.
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The incompetence of the amendment’s drafting is tied to the dishonesty of its intent. Republican leaders didn’t care about the fine points of the wording so long as the language was sufficiently vague and contained the word “bipartisan.” They hope that’s enough to fool voters into approving the amendment that appears to be a sensible-sounding good government measure.
There’s nothing bipartisan about this proposal. Democrats in the legislature overwhelmingly opposed it. What it is is a highly partisan effort by Republican legislative leaders to take away the power of a Democratic governor to oversee elections.
Republican leaders aren’t trying to improve the administration and oversight of election and ethics laws. They’re trying to impose gridlock on the system in a way that could limit early voting, leave local election disputes unresolved and force people to go to court over issues that leave the state board evenly split.
Traditionally, the governor appointed members to a five-member State Board of Elections with the governor’s party getting three seats to the opposing party’s two. At the county level, local boards were appointed by the state board with the governor’s party getting a 2-1 majority.
Soon after Gov. Roy Cooper was elected in 2016, Republican lawmakers decided that the current system of overseeing elections and enforcing ethics laws needed a dose of “bipartisanship.” After a court rejected their effort to take the governor’s appointment powers as their own, they approved a new board arrangement of four state board members from each party and a ninth member from neither party. The governor chooses the partisan board members from lists presented by legislative leaders from both parties. The governor choose the ninth member. The new law also changed county election boards to four members, two from each party.
On Oct. 16, a panel of three Superior Court judges voted 2-1 that the current arrangement is also an unconstitutional infringement on the separation of powers, but the judges have allowed it to remain in place for the Nov. 6 election. The court decision will be moot if the proposed amendment passes. In that event, the legislature will nominate and the governor will select an eight-member State Board of Elections equally divided between Democrats and Republicans and prone to deadlocking.
When a county board deadlocks and, on appeal, the state board deadlocks, no action can be taken. That could affect the counting of challenged ballots and access to early voting.
This amendment is sloppily worded, misleading and a threat to years of improvements in the voting process. It should be roundly rejected by voters.