State Politics

NC elections and ethics oversight is frozen between old and new, with local votes approaching

Voters outside a Raleigh precinct in March 2016.
Voters outside a Raleigh precinct in March 2016. N&O file photo

The state Supreme Court froze any further action in the revamp of the state elections board and ethics commission while a lawsuit challenging the merger awaits a hearing before the justices.

The state’s highest court agreed this week to take up a case filed by Gov. Roy Cooper, challenging a law adopted by the General Assembly this spring calling for the merger of the state Board of Elections and the state Ethics Commission.

But in an order issued on Thursday, Associate Justice Mike Morgan, the newest justice on the bench, put a halt on the process that is at the core of more than one legal challenge and has drawn heated debate. The case is scheduled for arguments at the Supreme Court on Aug. 28.

The boards merged in June into the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement after a three-judge panel ruled against the governor, but Cooper has not yet appointed members to it.

In addition to halting any appointments before the Supreme Court hearing, Morgan also said there could not be a reinstatement of a separate elections board and ethics commission, leaving the state’s election process in an ambiguous state at a time when municipal elections in Raleigh and other places are several months away.

Most county elections boards are still able to conduct business with their old board members, but some have lost some of their members through resignations, leaving them unable to make decisions. The state board appoints county boards.

The vacant state board also leaves the agency’s staff in charge of addressing an election problem in Cleveland County, where a new law creating partisan school board elections leaves an incumbent who is not affiliated with any political party unable to seek re-election. Legislators say they made a mistake in passing the law without adjusting a deadline for unaffiliated candidates in partisan elections to submit signatures to get on the ballot. That deadline occurred just hours after the law was enacted. Elections officials in Cleveland County are allowing the unaffiliated candidate to obtain petition materials while the confusion is addressed, potentially through legislation that could extend the petition deadline until September.

Ford Porter, Cooper's spokesman, praised the order putting a freeze on the process.

“We’re pleased the Supreme Court agrees with Governor Cooper that this legal process needs to be allowed to play out and that members should not be appointed to the proposed new board while that happens,” Porter said in a statement. “This ruling puts on hold any further actions to merge the elections and ethics boards until these critical issues get decided, and we look forward to making our case on August 28 to stop this backdoor effort to suppress voters.”

Colin Campbell of the N.C. Insider contributed to this report.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1