Politics & Government

Republicans want lawmakers, not governor, to decide who oversees elections

Cooper and legislators continue court fight over Board of Elections

Attorneys representing Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislative leaders make their arguments before a three judge panel as Cooper contests a restructuring of the State Board of Elections and the Ethics Commission. Cooper contends it takes away
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Attorneys representing Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislative leaders make their arguments before a three judge panel as Cooper contests a restructuring of the State Board of Elections and the Ethics Commission. Cooper contends it takes away

Republicans want legislative leaders to appoint all members of the state elections board, a power now held by the governor.

State House GOP leaders on Friday afternoon introduced a proposal to change the North Carolina Constitution to create an eight-member State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement with all members chosen by the House speaker and the Senate leader.

Voters would have to agree in November to change the constitution if the proposal wins approval in the House and Senate.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislators have been fighting over the makeup of the board since Cooper's election in November 2016. In the waning weeks of the administration of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, the Republican-led General Assembly put forward their first proposal to change the makeup of the elections and ethics boards. That effort continued for more than a year as the courts struck down some versions of the board, but opened the door for the nine-member merged board that is in place now.

The GOP proposal released Friday would mean that the governor would have no say in elections board membership.

"The elections and ethics oversight process should not be partisan and this constitutional amendment protects the board's impartiality in the strongest possible language," House Speaker Tim Moore said in a statement.

“Legislative Republicans are fundamentally rewriting the constitution to exclude all North Carolinians but themselves from making decisions about what is in the best interest of the state," Ford Porter, the governor's spokesman said. "This breathtaking amendment would disrupt the balance of power and destroy careful checks and balances of government, giving Republicans exclusive control over how you can vote, the cost of your energy bill, and the quality of your drinking water.”

Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, described the proposal as one attempting to blur the traditional separation of powers of representative government.

"Extremely often, they voice their concerns about alleged lawmaking by the executive and judicial branches," Goodwin said. "But here their own branch of government, led by Republicans, is attempting to strip away the duties of the executive branch solely because of the governor's political affiliation. ... Republican leaders continue to create fictitious problems with the North Carolina State Board of Elections and, in turn, create real problems. This proposal is yet another attempt by the Republican General Assembly to rig our election laws to favor the political party that controls the legislative branch."

As lawsuits have challenged the merger of the elections board and ethics commission, Cooper has cast the dispute as not just a power struggle between two branches of government.

The governor characterizes his fight as protecting access to the ballot box in a state where Republican lawmakers tried, before the federal courts struck it down, with a short-lived voter ID requirement and elections law overhaul to limit voting opportunities for black residents who often vote Democratic.

In 2016, hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on legal fees for the series of challenges questioning the outcome of the election, amid claims that some North Carolina voters also were registered in other states and voted twice and that other voters were felons whose right to vote had not been restored.

Those challenges were not heard by the courts.

They kept county election boards working overtime and highlighted how election boards at the county and state level could be drawn into political battles that don't end at the polls. The state board can be called on to weigh in on disputes that cannot be settled at the county level.

Local election boards, which now have four members, set hours for early voting and other initiatives. They also settle disputes over whether a candidate lives in the election district from which he or she is seeking office. Those disputes also can rise to the state-board level.

The state board now has nine members: four Democrats, four Republicans and an unaffiliated voter.

One of Cooper's objections to an evenly split board was the likelihood of deadlocked votes.

The eight party-affiliated board members nominate unaffiliated voters for appointment by the governor. At its meeting this year to make the nominations, the elections board deadlocked at least five times before agreeing on nominees. State GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said at that March meeting that Republicans would seek a change to the constitution, and that voters would overwhelmingly approve something called bipartisan.

Woodhouse said Friday his concern came after one of the state court rulings found that the election and ethics boards were under the executive branch.

"The court decision was very dangerous," Woodhouse said, adding that he thought it would give any governor more control to force policies on an election board. "The key part is that the court case established something that never had been done before."

Woodhouse also homed in on what he described as the bipartisan aspect of the proposed board. "It would be the textbook definition of intellectual dishonesty to say you support nonpartisan redistricting but you don't support nonpartisan administration of elections," he said.