NC State Board of Elections begins hearing into 9th District ‘absentee ballot scheme’
Kim Strach, who has led the North Carolina Board of Elections since 2013, was dismissed by the board Monday. She will be replaced by Karen Brinson Bell.
The vote was split along party lines, with the five-member elections board voting 3-2 in favor of replacing Strach with Brinson Bell. The board’s Democrats voted for Brinson Bell, while the board’s Republicans voted against her.
“Our top priorities will be promoting voter confidence in elections and assisting the 100 county boards, the boots on the ground in every election,” Brinson Bell said in a written statement after the vote Monday. “I plan to roll up my sleeves and work with State Board staff to prepare for the important elections ahead.”
She will start June 1. Strach will continue leading the agency until May 31.
Robert Cordle, the chairman of the N.C. Board of Elections, supported Brinson Bell’s hiring at a meeting Monday. He said the board needs to focus on training local election officials leading up to the 2020 elections, since there are numerous major races on the ballot and it will likely be the first major election with voter ID requirements.
“In 2020 we will have a big election, one that some people have called the most important in a generation,” Cordle said.
He pointed to Brinson Bell’s background as proof that she’s the best person for the job.
She was previously a regional trainer for the state elections board, he said, overseeing a dozen western counties. She later became the elections director in Transylvania County, which Cordle said gives her valuable insight into what local officials need from the state agency. She currently works for an advocacy group, the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, headed by longtime state elections director Gary Bartlett.
A political change?
The News & Observer reported Friday that Strach’s dismissal was imminent. The board recently gained a Democratic majority for the first time in several years. Strach has numerous Republican ties, while Brinson Bell has numerous Democratic ties.
David Black, a Republican member of the elections board, voted against Brinson Bell. He said Cordle is right that the 2020 elections will require a lot of preparation, which is why he didn’t think the time was right to force out Strach.
“To take her out, and put a new director in, will take us several steps back,” Black said.
Ken Raymond, the board’s other Republican member, also voted against Brinson Bell.
“The reasons that you cited don’t sound very compelling to me,” he told Cordle. Raymond also criticized the optics of the move, saying he’s concerned that people will think “the decisions are purely political. And that’s very bad.”
But Cordle criticized Raymond for publicly questioning Brinson Bell. Cordle said Raymond was given multiple opportunities to talk with her, to clear up questions he might have, but he never did.
Cordle said the change wasn’t political. Stella Anderson, another of the Democratic board members, said it will be important not to politicize the change in leadership.
“I think we’ll all support the efforts of all the state board staff,” she said.
Control of the elections board has historically changed with the politics of the day. Bartlett, a Democrat, was replaced by Strach in 2013 after Republican Gov. Pat McCrory defeated Democrat Walter Dalton. Strach is politically unaffiliated, but her husband, Phil Strach, is an attorney who frequently represents the state’s Republican-led legislature in court cases.
It’s possible that Monday’s change might have happened earlier in Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s tenure, if the state’s Republican-led legislature hadn’t re-written the laws for the elections board after Cooper defeated McCrory, to keep Cooper and the Democrats from gaining a majority on the board. But those changes were ruled unconstitutional late last year, and earlier this year the board went back to its historic status of being led by a majority of members from the governor’s party.
On Monday, Republican Rep. David Lewis — who leads many election law changes at the General Assembly — criticized Strach’s firing and said “the governor wanted a change and the governor got the change.”
Republican Sen. Ralph Hise said in a written statement that he thinks the board now has “a crisis of legitimacy” with Strach gone. Hise was investigated by the board, under Strach, for campaign finance violations and last year paid $4,500 to settle the investigation.
However, the N.C. Democratic Party shot back with not only a defense of Brinson Bell but also criticism of Strach — specifically that she protected Republicans both as an investigator and as the elections director.
“For nearly two decades, McCrory’s hand-picked elections director has protected Republican interests and refused to recuse herself from various conflicts,” Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said in a written statement. “We look forward to fresh leadership on the board.”
Although the position is tied to politics, Strach rose to the top job in 2013 as a staffer, not a politician — similar to Brinson Bell’s path to the top. Strach had worked as an elections and campaign finance investigator for the state for more than a decade before taking the top job.
Cordle said that although he supports replacing Strach, he thinks she has done an excellent job for the state. He pointed to the numerous lawsuits and legal changes that have recently reshaped the board’s duties and members several times, as well as the national headlines the board made with its investigation into fraud in the 9th District congressional race.
“During all of this turmoil Kim kept the elections ship afloat during those trying times,” Cordle said. “The culmination of her work was the 9th District hearings this year.”
As an elections staffer Strach looked into politicians of both parties, although her highest-profile investigations involved Democrats who later plead guilty to crimes, including former Gov. Mike Easley, former Speaker of the House Jim Black and former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, the News & Observer previously reported.
But after taking over the top job Strach oversaw high-profile investigations into Republicans, too — like the 9th District race. The board’s investigation into fraud benefiting Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris’ campaign ended with Harris bowing out of the race and the board ordering a new election.
That new election is underway now, and Cordle said Strach wasn’t available for comment Monday because she was in Bladen County helping local officials prepare for the new primary, which is on Tuesday.
Also on Monday, the elections board’s top lawyer, Josh Lawson, submitted a letter of resignation effective May 31, the same day Strach will leave. Lawson said he was not pressured to resign by anyone, and he urged the board to remain dedicated and non-partisan in its work.
“This agency serves voters best when it chooses accountability over complacency, people over partisanship, and the future over our past,” he wrote. “These serious times require nothing less, as you confront real and growing threats to elections security, public trust, and the democratic process.”
An earlier version of this story misstated who Pat McCrory defeated for governor in 2012.