House Republicans are rushing a bill through the legislature that would aim to salvage last year’s attempt to take away control of elections boards from the political party of the governor.
A law passed in a 2016 post-election special session and signed by former Gov. Pat McCrory would have consolidated the state elections and ethics boards and evenly divided membership of the new board between Republicans and Democrats. But a three-judge panel struck down that law last month as an unconstitutional encroachment on executive authority.
The 2016 law would have altered a longstanding practice giving a governor the power to appoint three members from his party to preside over elections as well as two members from the other party. Instead, the governor would have appointed four members and legislative leaders would have appointed the other four. In December, incoming Gov. Roy Cooper sued over those provisions, which were aimed at shifting some of the governor’s authority to the state legislature.
The panel of judges, in a unanimous ruling, said the elections board and ethics commission fell in the realm of the executive branch.
“The governor’s inability to appoint a controlling number of members of the new state board means that the legislature retains control over that board and can prevent the governor from taking action,” the judges ruled. “Because they reserve too much control in the legislature — and thus block the governor from ensuring faithful execution of the laws — the court concludes that the board of elections amendments are unconstitutional.”
The new proposal would allow the governor to appoint all eight members of the new board, although the membership would have to be evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and the governor would make his choices from lists provided by each of the major parties.
The board would then appoint one member to be the chairman or chairwoman. In the original law, that role would have rotated between the parties, with Republicans leading in even-numbered years when most elections are held.
Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, explained the new bill to the House Ethics and Elections Law Committee. He said it was written to address the judges’ concerns, reducing the number of board members required for a quorum and the number required to vote on various actions.
The governor could remove board members only for specific legal reasons.
Like the previous law, the new proposal would increase county elections boards from three to four members, evenly split between the parties. County boards would select their own chairs, who would belong to alternating political parties every other year with Republicans leading in even-numbered years.
Democrats on the committee complained that they had not been provided a copy of the bill until 10:30 p.m. Monday. The proposal was not publicly available until Tuesday’s meeting.
Lewis said House leadership intends to pass the bill before next week’s spring break, and that ample time will be left for floor debate and amendments. Republicans on the committee approved waiving a rule that requires rewritten bills be available to members by 9 p.m. the night before they are taken to a committee.
Legislators gutted an unrelated Senate bill and replaced it with this new proposal, so that it can move more quickly through the House and Senate. The measure passed on a split voice vote that appeared to be along party lines.
It was sent to the House Finance Committee, which was scheduled to take it up Tuesday night.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly explained how the governor could appoint members under the bill.