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State Board of Elections proposal: Power grab or good government?
You can make a strong argument that Senate Bill 749 would improve trust in elections. But it's time for the General Assembly to drop the idea and move on.
Battling over appointments is a time-honored tradition in North Carolina politics.
For the last 50 years1, state legislators have responded to a political opponent in the governor's office by taking away his power — especially when it comes to naming members of the scores of boards and commissions that wield executive authority.
Democrats in the General Assembly did it when Republican governors Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin took office in the 1970s and 80s. And now Republicans are continuing to do it with Democrat Roy Cooper in the Executive Mansion.
Usually, you can chalk it all up as petty partisan power grabs. But every once in a while, it actually results in good governance.
So which is it now? The General Assembly released last week a proposal to turn North Carolina's State Board of Elections into an entity evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
The answer is complicated. You can make a strong argument that the General Assembly’s proposed changes would result in better administration. On its face, it seems odd to give one party a designated advantage in the election system.
But the people of North Carolina spoke powerfully on this issue just five years ago. Voters, in general, seem to be tired of petty partisan games.
Let’s dive into it.
Why the State Board of Elections matters
Under current law, voting in North Carolina is run by a five-member Board of Elections at the state level, and three-member boards in each county.
While the General Assembly is still the authority on election law, the State Board of Elections manages how the law is implemented — from setting the calendar on early voting, setting ballots in place, approving voting machines, accepting campaign finance reports and determining what types of IDs can be used to vote.
County boards of election do things like decide on early voting and precinct voting locations.
Most of this work is uncontroversial. However, these election boards also must formally certify election results and get involved if there’s a dispute involving campaign law.
The highest-profile example of this came in late 2018 and early 2019 when the State Board of Elections abruptly declined to certify the results of the 9th Congressional District race that Republican Mark Harris had apparently won.
The board then investigated allegations of illegal ballot harvesting in Bladen County and held a hearing to decide whether to require a new election. Harris ultimately agreed that a new election was required before the board had to decide.
The State Board of Elections also played a major role in the 2020 election cycle, when the board used emergency powers to change all sorts of rules for voting during Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID lockdowns.
How the board is currently formed
Under current law, the State Board of Election is filled by members appointed by the governor to four-year terms. Both the state Democratic Party and Republican Party submit lists of names of recommendations to the governor, and the governor can then choose three members from one party and two from the other.
Naturally, the governor gives his party an advantage — so today’s board is made up of three Democrats and two Republicans.
The State Board of Elections then appoints four members of county elections boards, and the governor gets to pick the chair — again giving the governor’s party an advantage. Today’s county boards have three Democrats and two Republicans — even in deep red counties.
The proposed changes
Senate Bill 749 would make major changes to all that. The bill would remove the governor from the process entirely and instead have the General Assembly make all the appointments to the State Board of Elections and the county boards.
The board would grow to eight members, with four being Democrats and four being Republicans. The House speaker would get two picks, the Senate president pro tem two picks, the House minority party leader two picks, and the Senate minority leader two picks.
State parties would still submit recommendations, but the General Assembly wouldn’t need to use them.
If this evenly split board deadlocks in naming an executive director, the General Assembly would step in and solve the issue.
Is this good government?
On its face, the plan seems reasonable. Not many election board votes break down on party lines, but occasionally they do. And when they do, there’s a real risk of losing confidence in the election system if the decisions are seen as partisan.
Ideally, election administration would be as nonpolitical as possible. This isn’t realistic, though, so an evenly split board feels like a close approximation.
It’s also in line with how a number of other states conduct elections. No two states are the same, but North Carolina would be in good company under the new plan.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has a good primer on how different states structure their election administration2. Seventeen states and Washington D.C. have a board that oversees elections. However, the NCSL doesn’t lay out the partisan makeup of all these boards.
So Longleaf Politics analyzed the state laws in each state to determine how state elections boards are filled.
Eleven of them can give an advantage to the party in power. In many cases, the partisan split is similar to current North Carolina law — a one-vote advantage to the governor’s party. However, I’ve noted below when it is otherwise.
Arkansas. Seven members, with appointments split between the governor, legislative leaders and state parties. In theory, you could have a 6-1 partisan split.
Georgia. Five members, with appointments made by legislative leaders and the two state parties. The chair is required to be unaffiliated with a party.
Hawaii. Nine members, with eight coming from legislative leaders and one appointed by the other eight.
Rhode Island. Seven members, all appointed by the governor.
South Carolina. Five members, appointed by legislative leaders and the state parties. In theory, you could have a 4-1 partisan split.
West Virginia. Five members: Secretary of State and four governor appointments. Only two of the governor’s appointments can be of the same party.
Six states require there to be an even partisan split on the state elections board.
Delaware. Governor appoints 10 members with a 5-5 split.
Illinois. Governor appoints eight members with a 4-4 split.
Indiana. Governor appoints four members with a 2-2 split.
Kentucky. Governor appoints eight members with a 4-4 split.
New York. Governor appoints four members with a 2-2 split.
Wisconsin. Appointments are divided between the legislature and governor with a 3-3 partisan split.
So, should the General Assembly make this change?
On the whole, there’s nothing out of the ordinary with the proposal to change the State Board of Elections. While it’s not exactly like any other state’s, it’s not really out of line with what’s normal.
Of course, Democrats argue that it’s purely about partisan games and that a deadlocked board could result in all sorts of electoral shenanigans.
These concerns are way overblown. There’s a pretty strong argument to be made that this bill is an example of good governance that will shore up the integrity of our election system.
However, the General Assembly shouldn’t pursue the plan, for one simple reason: The people of North Carolina don’t want it, and they’ve said so pretty clearly.
It feels like ancient history now, but a statewide vote in 2018 on this exact issue rejected the General Assembly’s plan overwhelmingly.
The quick backstory: The General Assembly has been trying to remove Gov. Roy Cooper’s power of the State Board of Elections since soon after he took office after the 2016 election.
The first few tries were ultimately struck down by the court system. So the General Assembly tried to enshrine an even split on the State Board of Elections into the state constitution.
It was one of six proposed constitutional amendments on the 2018 ballot. Two of them failed — the two that would have reduced the governor’s power to make appointments. The amendment to require an evenly split board of elections chosen by the General Assembly failed by a vote of 62% to 38%. It wasn’t even close.
It’s hard to make the argument that people didn’t know what they were voting for. Four of the amendments passed overwhelmingly, including one to require photo voter ID.
Another part of Senate Bill 749 would take away the ability of the state elections executive director to wield broad emergency powers. This is a good idea, and worth changing the law to implement.
But it’s time for the General Assembly to drop the idea of cutting out the governor’s appointments3.
Republicans should just focus on winning the Executive Mansion, instead. And in the meantime, spend what precious little political capital the party has left on issues that are actually important to North Carolina families, like getting political indoctrination out of our schools.
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The general power struggle is even older than that. When Republicans took the governorship in 1871, the Democrat-led General Assembly responded by first impeaching Gov. William Woods Holden and then stripping his successor (former Lt. Gov. Tod Caldwell) of virtually his entire staff and budget.
Interestingly enough, it’s actually unusual for the State Board of Elections to select the executive director of elections. In 33 states, voters directly elect the chief elections official (usually it’s the Secretary of State). Only seven states do it our way.
When Gov. Holshouser took office, newly elected Lt. Gov. Jim Hunt had the foresight to temper his party’s desire to take all of the governor’s power away. He had his eye on the Executive Mansion — and of course, he’d occupy it for 16 years. If Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson really feels like he can win the governor’s race in 2024, he should be pushing hard against this proposal.