North Carolina’s election system is broken. The constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall will just make it worse.
Since 1901 our elections have been run by the State Board of Elections and 100 county boards. Until Gov. Roy Cooper’s election the state board consisted of five members appointed by the governor from names submitted by the Democratic and Republican parties. The majority of the state board — and each county board — came from the governor’s party; the remaining members from the other party. Historically, partisanship was not often an issue. Board members put party aside when conducting elections.
After Cooper’s election Republican legislators hurriedly increased the state board to eight members, and county boards to four, half from each party. Cooper sued, claimed violation of separation of powers, and won. The legislature then enacted a nine-member state board — four Democrats, four Republicans, one unaffiliated — though that’s now in court. Each county board has two Democrats and two Republicans.
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The new election boards are more partisan than ever, as two recent events illustrate. First was the case of Jen Mangrum, a Democrat running against Republican Senate leader Phil Berger. Her residency in the district was challenged, but she clearly satisfied the law. The local election board panel disqualified her; three Republicans voted against her, two Democrats for. She appealed to the state board where she won five to four, but all four Republicans voted against her.
Mangrum was the first significant test of whether the new boards could act without partisanship. The Republicans failed, every one voting the party position.
Democrats did not wait long to show they could be just as partisan. It happened when Cooper went to court claiming that the ballot language for the state board constitutional amendment was misleading. In the past the board itself would not have taken a side in such a dispute. Yet the four Democrats on the board, and the unaffiliated member, voted to endorse the governor’s argument. They voted with their party when they should have stood neutral.
Why are election board members now more partisan? A couple of explanations come to mind. First is the Republican legislature’s unrelenting politicization of the election process — extreme gerrymandering, voter ID, restricting one-stop voting sites, etc. — rewriting one election law after another to help their candidates. Not surprisingly, that mindset — that elections are to be manipulated to favor one party over another — has spilled over to party representatives on election boards.
The other factor is shrinking party memberships, leaving only the most partisan voters to be appointed to election boards. Twenty-five years ago virtually all voters were Democrats or Republicans. Today nearly a third are unaffiliated. They outnumber Republicans statewide. In ten counties independents outnumber both Democrats and Republicans. Yet, despite the sea change in registration, election boards by law remain only Democrats and Republicans. With a single unaffiliated voter added to the state board this year there now are 204 Democratic election board members statewide, 204 Republicans, and one independent — one of 409.
The smaller number of registered Democrats and Republicans who remain legally eligible to serve on election boards are likely to be more partisan than the people who used to be appointed. That’s the result of taking out of the pool of potential board members the two million plus voters who declare themselves independent.
The constitutional amendment would put in place an eight-member “Bipartisan State Board” — “bipartisan” rather than “nonpartisan” because bipartisan means only two parties get represented, no one else. The board would be only Democrats and Republicans; the appointments would be controlled by legislators; and it could be changed only by constitutional amendment. In short, the amendment institutionalizes the current problem.
We need to restructure our election administration to assure that all voters may participate equally. Rejecting the constitutional amendment is the first step, but only the first.