New Elections Bill Could Replace Stability With Chaos, Voting Advocates Say

CLEMMONS, NC - NOVEMBER 08: A sign directs voters at polling place on November 8, 2022 in Clemmons, North Carolina. After months of candidates campaigning, Americans are voting in the midterm elections to decide close races across the nation. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

By Michael McElroy

June 14, 2023

North Carolina Republicans’ new bill would overhaul how the state and county boards of elections are chosen, giving more power to the General Assembly and creating a system that could snarl decision-making.

Recent elections in North Carolina were so free, fair and efficient that the state Board of Elections won several national awards and its leaders were asked to help other states be more like North Carolina. 

But now, state Republicans say the board must be completely remade.

Senate Republicans introduced a bill Monday that would overhaul how the state and county boards are chosen, giving more power to the General Assembly and creating a system that could snarl decision-making.

Under current law, there are five members on the state board, two chosen by Republicans, two by Democrats, and one by the governor. The new legislation, if passed, would expand the board to eight members, but take away the governor’s appointment and instead give Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly four appointments each. 

The new bill, which comes as the state board is already trying to implement new Voter ID requirements, would also give lawmakers possible control over choosing board leadership. 

These moves are necessary, Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger said in a news conference Monday, because voters do not trust elections in North Carolina. The partisan makeup of the current board, he said, adds to that distrust. 

Voters’ growing distrust in elections, however, springs foremost from the lies and conspiracies about the 2020 presidential election spread by former president Donald Trump and his allies, including North Carolina Reps. Dan Bishop and Ted Budd—now a member of the US Senate. 

Actual vote fraud and orchestrated irregularities in vote counts are exceedingly rare.

While Senate Bill 749 looks bipartisan on paper, an even number of board members split on party lines raises the chances that no consensus is ever possible, and that urgent issues go unresolved. If such a stalemate lasts more than a few weeks, then the Republican-controlled General Assembly would have the power to take over decision-making on leadership positions.

Such a scenario could help Republicans in the legislature reach longstanding goals to limit voting sites, reduce the number of early voting days, and restrict the circumstances in which polling hours could be extended, all of which fall under the purview of the board of elections. 

“A board of elections paralyzed by this type of politically-motivated gridlock would not only hurt North Carolina voters in upcoming elections, but could also sow chaos in future cycles as well,” Bryan Warner, a spokesman for the pro-democracy group Common Cause NC, said in an email Tuesday.

Both Senate Bill 749 and a separate bill that would make even bigger changes to voting in North Carolina would also make it harder to vote, especially for people of color and young voters, who tend to vote for Democrats. Limiting these populations’ ability to vote provides a clear benefit for state Republicans, voting advocates say. 

“This latest proposal by Republican lawmakers is yet another politically motivated plan to attack our state’s separation of powers and undermine our elections,” Warner said.

Similar Bills Were Rejected by Both Courts and Voters

This is not the first time Republicans have attempted to overhaul the board of elections. A similar effort to strip the governor of his appointment power was ruled unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court in 2018. That same year, voters also rejected a Republican-backed constitutional amendment to take away the governor’s appointment power by nearly 30 percentage points.

“The people of North Carolina and our courts have already spoken clearly and rejected proposals to restructure the State Board of Elections,” Warner said. “This newest push by legislators defies the will of North Carolina voters.”

Questionable Polling Numbers

In the news conference on Monday, Berger said that he thought the court case had been wrongly decided and that any new lawsuit that came before the new North Carolina Supreme Court, which now has a Republican majority, would get a more favorable result. 

Berger also claimed that because voters now so distrust elections, they will be more receptive to these widespread changes. He cited a poll backed by the conservative John Locke Foundation showing that only half of likely voters in the state thought the 2024 elections would be free and fair.

Senate Bill 749 would change that perception, Berger argued. But a closer look at polling shows that those perceptions are only held by a specific subset of voters: 

  • A poll ahead of the 2022 election showed that nearly half of North Carolina Republican voters doubted that elections officials would count the ballots fairly or accurately. But there were no issues with the actual votes, post election audits showed and very few instances of fraud.
  • A Marist Poll around the same timeframe found that 76% of North Carolinians were confident in the state’s election officials, and in an Elon University poll, some 64% of North Carolinians said they were at least somewhat confident the election would be fair.

“To restore confidence in our elections, we have to take a new approach devoid of partisan bias,” Republican State Sen. Paul Newton said at the news conference. 

The new bill’s four Republicans, four Democrats structure is similar to the Federal Election Commission, Newton said, and would ensure that the board “would not be able to take any action without first building a bipartisan coalition.”

“It is incontrovertible that we’re living in a time of severe political polarization,” he said, “and that affects a voter’s perception of election fairness.”

Election Accolades

Newton told reporters that the state needed to change the way it runs elections because “our current system is not serving us well.” But by any measurable account, that’s simply not true.

In 2022, the current board of elections was named as a “Defender of Democracy,” an award given by the non-profit Center for Election Innovations & Research to officials “who courageously stood up against efforts to undermine the democratic process.”

It also won an award that year for its communication among the state and county boards, and was praised for its efforts in recruiting and training poll workers.

The state board’s director, Karen Brinson Bell, was also recently named to several national boards seeking to improve elections and election security across the country.

Voter turnout reached record numbers in 2020, even in the middle of a pandemic, where elections officials saw surges in the number of absentee ballots and early voting. After each election, by state law, the board conducts audits to ensure the vote totals are accurate before the final results are announced.

The Board of Elections has referred some 60 cases of suspected voter fraud to local district attorneys during the 2020 and 2021 municipal elections. 

More than 5.5 million votes were cast in 2020 alone. 

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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