State Politics

Should NC let unaffiliated voters serve on elections boards?

Voters cast ballots in Raleligh in November 2014. As the number of voters unaffiliated with the Democratic and Republican parties grows in NC, Michael Crowell, an attorney from Carrboro and unaffilated voter, contends a law excluding unaffiliated voters from elections boards is unconstitutional.
Voters cast ballots in Raleligh in November 2014. As the number of voters unaffiliated with the Democratic and Republican parties grows in NC, Michael Crowell, an attorney from Carrboro and unaffilated voter, contends a law excluding unaffiliated voters from elections boards is unconstitutional. N&O file

Michael Crowell, a lawyer from Carrboro who has represented clients challenging North Carolina election laws, filed a lawsuit in federal court this week over the new law reshaping elections oversight.

Crowell, who is registered as an unaffilated voter in Orange County and representing himself, says the law adopted in April violates his rights to equal protection, free speech and freedom of association.

The law merges the state Elections Board and Ethics Commission into a single board consisting of eight members — four Democrats and four Republicans who are appointed by the governor from a list of nominees provided by the party chairs. The board is responsible for selecting who serves on county elections boards, which are each to be made up of two Democrats and two Republicans nominated by the parties.

The lawsuit would have implications even if the new law is overturned in court. Before the law changed, the governor appointed members of the state elections board from recommendations by the leaders of the major political parties. Those nominees had to be members of the parties.

Since the establishment of the state Board of Elections in 1901 until its revamp this spring, Crowell pointed out that there never has been a member on it who was unaffiliated with the Democratic and Republican parties. Currently, there are no unaffiliated voters on any of the 100 county election boards, either, according to his lawsuit.

Crowell, who has been registered to vote in North Carolina since 1970, was a registerd Democrat for 24 of those years. In 1994, after being asked to serve on a commission studying the fairness of the North Carolina courts, Crowell changed his registration to unaffiliated.

Over the years, voter registration rolls have reflected a growing number of unaffiliated voters.

Of nearly 1 million new voters added to the rolls since May 2008, nearly 800,000 are unaffiliated, according to Democracy North Carolina, a voting rights advocacy organization.

As of April 15, Crowell noted, North Carolina had 2.639 million unaffiliated registered voters. Around the state:

  • In eight North Carolina counties — Camden, Currituck, Dare, Henderson, New Hanover, Polk, Transylvania and Watauga — there were more unaffiliated registered voters than either Democrats or Republicans.
  • In 47 counties, the number of unaffiliated voters topped the number of registered Republicans.
  • The number of unaffiliated voters topped registered Democrats in 30 counties.
  • In Orange County, where Crowell votes, 41,917 voters are registered as unaffiliated and 16,562 are Republicans.
  • In Mecklenburg, Wake and Guilford counties – the three with the highest voter registration numbers – unaffiliated voters outnumber Republicans.

As a former UNC School of Government professor, Crowell has written editions of “The Precinct Manual,” a handbook for elections officials distributed by the state Board of Elections. He also has been a teacher at training conferences for county boards, as well as been a lecturer on election law to superior court judges, local elected officials and city and county attorneys – yet he cannot serve on the state board that supervises elections.

Not only has he asked the federal court to nullify the parts of the state law that restrict appointments to the Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, he has asked for enforcement of the new law to be blocked until the questions of constitutionality are resolved.

“I’ve been thinking about doing this for some time,” Crowell said on Thursday.

Crowell’s lawsuit is one of two filed over the revamp of the elections board and ethics commission.

Gov. Roy Cooper has also challenged the law in state court. That challenge was recently rejected by a three-judge panel, but Cooper’s office quickly announced the governor’s plan to appeal the decision.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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