North Carolina Legislature gives final OK to election board changes, governor’s veto to follow

The North Carolina General Assembly gave final approval Friday to Republican-backed legislation that would shift control of the state board of elections from the governor and give it to lawmakers as the 2024 elections begin.

With the Senate recording a party-line vote to accept a consensus GOP measure after the House wrapped up a similar vote late Thursday night, the bill now heads to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Cooper has already vowed to veto it, saying it's a GOP power play that will deadlock the proposed new board, potentially limiting access to early in-person voting and giving the General Assembly and the courts more opportunities to settle disputed elections.

Republicans say the new structure will result in building more consensus on election issues, building voter confidence. But it could also lead to the current state elections executive being removed from her job weeks before key primary elections are held in March in the nation's ninth largest state.

Republicans hold narrow veto majorities in the House and Senate, so a successful override is likely next month. GOP lawmakers have tried since 2016 to erode the governor's power in elections, but those efforts have been rejected by the courts or rejected by voters. More litigation could ensue if enacted. Unlike in recent years, the state Supreme Court now has a majority of Republican justices.

The changes will begin Jan. 1 — earlier than the July 1 start that was included in a version of the measure approved by the House on Tuesday. But Senate Republicans have refused to start the changes next summer.

“July 1, 2024 would be in the middle of the 2024 election. It's not a good time to make this change,” Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger said this week.

The state's 7.3 million registered voters will vote for president, governor and several other positions this year. 2024 will also provide the primary test for election officials administering new voter photo ID requirements that begin this fall during municipal elections.

Under the bill, the House speaker, Senate leader and minority party leaders in each chamber would each choose two seats on the proposed eight-member election board — likely giving Democrats and Republicans four seats each. The current board appointment process, in which the governor selects the five members, typically gives the governor's party a 3-2 majority.

The same 3-2 split also occurs on county boards, which under the bill would now be reduced to four seats, with legislative leaders each nominating an appointee. The approved bill says if the new state board can't select an executive director by Jan. 10, then Berger would.

Current executive director Karen Brinson Bell, who was hired by the board in 2019, is widely respected among colleagues nationally. But Republican lawmakers were unhappy with her for her role in a 2020 legal settlement as the vote began to ease some rules for mail-in ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic beyond what state law allowed. It could be retained by the new board.

After Friday's vote, Berger said the settlement, which also involved Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, is one of the reasons Democrats are upset with the bill because “they will no longer be able to change the rules as long as the game is played. “

Stein, who is running for governor in 2024, said that with the bill GOP lawmakers are “undermining our democracy and jeopardizing early voting by seizing power in elections.”

Another election bill that Cooper vetoed last month and is expected to pass in the Legislature would end a grace period for mail-in voting and allow party poll watchers to travel to polling locations.

These bills “take our electoral system to a more unstable place, not a more stable, predictable one,” Democratic Sen. Julie Mayfield said during Friday's debate.

Former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was rigged have sparked a wave of GOP election law and administrative overhauls as he begins his campaign to retake the White House.

North Carolina was Trump's narrowest victory of 2020 and is expected to be a battleground state next year. Sponsors of the bills reached by Cooper's office declined to comment on Trump's accusations.

In another battleground state last week, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate voted to remove the state's top election official. Democrats say the Senate vote was illegal, and the state's Democratic attorney general has sued to challenge that vote.