State Politics

GOP’s elections board change takes effect Sunday. Will Cooper sue to stop it?

State Board of Elections members Joshua Malcolm, left, and A. Grant Whitney Jr. during a September board meeting. Malcolm, Whitney and three other current board members won’t be on the newly created Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.
State Board of Elections members Joshua Malcolm, left, and A. Grant Whitney Jr. during a September board meeting. Malcolm, Whitney and three other current board members won’t be on the newly created Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. tlong@newsobserver.com

When the new year begins on Sunday, North Carolina’s State Board of Elections will officially cease to exist.

The agency’s roughly 70 employees will return to work next week at its downtown Raleigh headquarters – but as part of the new Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

The Jan. 1 change will merge the elections board with the State Ethics Commission, which administers ethics laws governing lobbyists, elected officials and government employees. The merger was approved by the Republican-led legislature during its special session earlier this month and signed by outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory, one of several changes that limit the power of incoming Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

Cooper would have had the power to appoint three of the five Board of Elections members, but he’ll only get to appoint four of the new board’s members – and two of them must be Republicans. Legislative leaders will appoint the other four members, and the entire board must split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

Under the new law, those appointees won’t start until July 1. Until then, the current State Ethics Commission members will hold the seats – a group that doesn’t have much experience with election law. The State Board of Elections members who presided over 2016’s contentious early voting and post-election complaints will end their service Saturday.

State Board of Elections staffers have had just two weeks to prepare for the change. That process has involved clearing out office space for Ethics Commission staffers and providing binders of information to Ethics Commission members about their new responsibilities. Leaders are also considering merging online databases of public records produced by both agencies.

“The new State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has a real opportunity to make important advances in transparency and accountability for those we serve and those we are asked to hold accountable,” said Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the Board of Elections. Strach will lead the new agency’s operations. “We’ve had productive discussions with Ethics Commission leadership and staff, and believe we will be able to work together to enhance and improve the functions of both of our previous agencies in 2017 and beyond.”

The transition could be delayed if Cooper files a lawsuit challenging the change. Asked Thursday if Cooper might sue before the Jan. 1 merger – a move that could put the changes on hold – spokesman Ford Porter said that “nothing is being filed today, but as the governor-elect previously said, they can expect to see him in court.”

If Cooper doesn’t block the agency merger, it’s unclear who will chair the new Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

The law gives that position to the current Ethics Commission chair, but that seat is vacant after the resignation of chairman George Wainwright.

McCrory could appoint a replacement for Wainwright, a Republican, before he leaves office Saturday night, and that person would chair the new board until May. If he doesn’t, Cooper could fill the seat, but the law requires him to appoint a Republican and stipulates that his appointee wouldn’t serve as chair. Under the latter scenario, Ethics Commission vice-chairwoman Jane Finch, a Democrat, would likely lead the new board’s meetings.

“The new board members are going to need to get up to speed very quickly with election law,” said Bob Hall of the voting rights group Democracy North Carolina. “It (the new law) was slammed through quickly, and that’s unfortunate.”

It’s unclear if the board will set early voting schedules for a 2017 special legislative primary – one of its most contentious duties – before new appointees take office on July 1. This year featured early voting disputes in which Democrats on the elections board pushed for extended hours while Republicans largely opposed expansion.

Under the new law, the new elections and ethics board can’t take action with a simple majority – six of eight members must vote in favor. If the board deadlocks, matters could then be appealed to a Wake County Superior Court judge.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

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