It’s easy to get bogged down in the politics right now as N.C. Democrats and Republicans battle over control of the State Board of Elections.
I do it, too — the most recent Longleaf Politics email focused on the power struggle. I even called it “kind of sophomoric.” [Note: If you’re not signed up for the weekly newsletter, you really should be.]
But let’s set that aside for a moment. What is actually the best way for the elections board be governed?
If you do think of it that way, maybe the state GOP majority is onto something after all.
First, how we got here.
The N.C. State Board of Elections is in charge of the state’s elections process and campaign finance, plus oversees the 100 county elections board. They make all sorts of decisions around early voting rules, election recounts, polling place equipment, and disputes and protests in the course of our electoral system.
For several decades, these were the rules for how the board was appointed.
The Governor shall appoint the members from a list of nominees submitted to him by the State party chairman of each of the two political parties having the highest number of registered affiliates as reflected by the latest registration statistics published by the State Board of Elections. Each party chairman shall submit a list of five nominees who are affiliated with that political party. No person may serve more than two consecutive four-year terms.
In plain English, this means that there were 5 members. Three came from the governor’s party, and two from the minority party.
Things changed in late 2016 when it became clear that Republican Gov. Pat McCrory had lost his re-election bid against Democrat Roy Cooper.
The General Assembly pushed through a bill that changed the composition of the State Board of Elections to this:
The State Board shall consist of eight individuals registered to vote in North Carolina, appointed by the Governor, four of whom shall be of the political party with the highest number of registered affiliates and four of whom shall be of the political party with the second highest number of registered affiliates, as reflected by the latest registration statistics published by the State Board.
This makes it an 8 member board — 4 from the governor’s party and 4 from the minority party.
Shortly after taking office, Cooper sued. Just a few weeks ago, the case was decided in his favor. The N.C. Supreme Court found that this arrangement violated the separation of powers part of the state constitution by keeping him from executing his duties1. The court said the governor needs “enough control” over the elections board to implement his policies.
So in early February, the state legislature introduced a bill2 that changes the composition of the State Board of Elections yet again.
Here’s the new language:
The State Board shall consist of nine individuals registered to vote in North Carolina, appointed by the Governor, as follows:
(1) Four individuals registered with the political party with the highest number of registered affiliates in the State, from a list of six nominees submitted by the State party chairs of that party.
(2) Four individuals registered with the political party with the second highest number of registered affiliates in the State, from a list of six nominees submitted by the State party chairs of that party.
(3) One individual not registered with either the political party with the largest number of registered affiliates in the State or of the political party with the second-largest number of registered affiliates in the State, from a list of two nominees selected by the other eight members of the State Board.
That’s a 9 member board with 4 Democrats, 4 Republicans and one member who’s neither.
The bill containing this provision passed both houses and headed to the governor’s desk Tuesday.
Let’s face it — the Republicans look bad here.
It’s a bad look to start stripping away powers from the governor once you know he’s going to be from the opposing party. It plays handily into the narrative of the “big bad GOP” here in North Carolina.
It looks almost as bad to tweak the law just a bit once you lose in court.
But do we really want a partisan elections board?
We can all agree that the integrity of our state’s elections is important. Maintaining impartiality at the agency charged with overseeing elections feels like a big part of that.
Some decisions they have to make are inherently are political.
Rules on early voting carry a partisan split: Democrats generally favor expanding the number and hours of early voting sites, while Republicans favor reducing them.
The State Board of Elections had to decide whether to extend voting hours in Durham County in 2016 after software glitches slowed things down. And the Durham County board split on party lines on whether to look into McCrory’s claims of miscounted votes.
It’s pretty clear that governors do not need a partisan majority to run elections.
A poll from the conservative Civitas Institute3 found that 79 percent of likely voters in North Carolina favor a bipartisan State Board of Elections, split equally between the Democratic and Republican parties.
N.C. Democrats are crying loudly for nonpartisan redistricting.
I think the State Board of Elections is in the same category. It might sting a little for N.C. Democrats to sit this fight out, but it feels like the right thing from an intellectual honesty perspective.
While the political theater might make us queasy, this bipartisan arrangement is likely the best for North Carolina.