Public Safety Building in Brevard on primary election day in 2016.
A voting sign appears outside a Transylvania County polling place at the Public Safety Building in Brevard during the 2016 primary election. Ari Sen / Carolina Public Press

A state Supreme Court justice granted relief Friday to county boards of election, which make decisions about early voting sites and hours and are responsible for approving absentee ballots, after state-level legal fight that had left some boards unable to make crucial decisions about upcoming elections.

The Republican General Assembly’s creation of the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, following the election of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, but prior to former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory leaving office, has been tied up in litigation since Cooper filed a lawsuit to halt the changes.

State Supreme Court Justice Mike Morgan signed an order Friday that would allow two- and three-member county election boards to make decisions about early voting sites and hours for upcoming elections without a quorum, as long as those decisions are made unanimously.

The new eight-member state board, which Cooper has thus far refused to fill with appointees, would be split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, nullifying the tradition of the governor’s party having a 3-2 numerical advantage on the state board and a 2-1 advantage on county election boards. Cooper has opted against filling those seats while the litigation makes its way through the courts.

The legislation also increased the number of county board members from three to four, split between Democrats and Republicans. Cooper has argued in court that the legislation violates the separation of powers rules in the North Carolina Constitution, charging the legislature with overstepping its mandate.

Morgan’s order also sends the case back to the three-judge superior court panel that dismissed the lawsuit in June. That panel claimed it didn’t have jurisdiction over the case, which led Cooper to appeal to the state’s highest court.

Morgan’s order gives the superior court panel 60 days to give more details about why those judges believed they couldn’t rule on the case and to reevaluate Cooper’s claims.

Swain, Transylvania election boards shorthanded

Morgan’s order also allows counties like Swain and Transylvania, which are both operating with two-member boards, to move forward with plans for municipal elections in November.

In Swain County, the elections board shrunk when board member Wayne Shuler resigned prior to a move out of the county, according to The Smoky Mountain Times. Prior to that resignation, longtime elections director Joan Weeks got the board together to set early voting hours and sites for November’s municipal election and to approve the addition to the ballot of two referendums related to alcohol sales in Bryson City.

Weeks, who has been Swain County’s elections director for more than three decades, told Carolina Public Press on Friday, prior to Morgan’s order, that a lack of action from the state was leaving county boards in a situation where shorthanded boards had to “hurry up and wait.”

“Knowing what was coming into play, I went ahead, when I still had three members, and got one-stop voting done so that the things that take board action could get done,” she said. “I was trying to deal with things ahead of time, when I did have a board…We don’t know what’s coming down the pipe. We’re waiting for direction, waiting for a green light to say ‘this is how you go forward.’”

Transylvania County was one of more than a dozen counties across North Carolina without full election boards.

Officials there had been unable to set early voting hours or sites but, thanks to Morgan’s order, the county’s two-member board plans to meet Thursday to make those decisions, according to Transylvania elections director Tracie Fisher, who told Carolina Public Press on Tuesday that she was “very thankful to be moving forward” with plans for Brevard elections in November.

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Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email or call 828-774-5290.

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