Voters cast ballots at a precinct in Weaverville on Election Day in 2016. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Editor’s note: The original article appears below. See update note with new developments at the end.

The dust settled Tuesday on the N.C. State Board of Elections shakeup when Gov. Roy Cooper appointed two Republicans nominated by the state party to replace two Republicans who quit two weeks ago at the behest of the party.

So, what was the point? And what have we learned?

For the GOP, the drama likely accomplished two things. First, two members who had lost the confidence of party leaders were replaced by fresh blood. The appointees are Tommy Tucker of Union County, who served in the state Senate from 2011-18, and Carr McLamb, a lawyer who runs a wastewater management firm based in Wake County.

Given the stakes in this election — not to mention the take-no-prisoners legal battles likely to continue even beyond Election Day — shoring up the GOP contingent on the state board now makes sense.

“My gut tells me this was simply hardball politics,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College. “If they’re looking at having a contested result, these are the folks you want on the board.”

Sending a message

The GOP also dramatized its contention that the NCSBE, with its 3-2 split between Democrats and Republicans, is illegally “colluding” with allies of the Democratic Party to expand the pool of Democratic voters.

Judges weighing lawsuits built on that claim may or may not be swayed by the headlines, but this very public ploy lets the GOP drive home its point.

“People forget that this is a partisan board with a Democratic majority,” said Tim Wigginton, a spokesman for the state Republican Party. The resignations, he said, were a way to “shed more light and bring more scrutiny.”

Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University, echoed that assessment. “Simply put: If attention and driving the conversation is the goal, the resignations have already been successful,” Cooper said.

System ripe for political football

As to the larger lessons, it’s one more example of how North Carolina’s approach to administering elections — which is somewhat unusual compared with other states — is hard-wired for partisan wrangling. The past four years, in particular, have seen the agency charged with ensuring free and fair elections used as a political football.

The latest fracas grew out of court battles over the state law that governs voting by mail. Left-leaning groups have sued to relax various requirements, with both the NCSBE and the GOP-dominated legislature as defendants.

On Sept. 15, the NCSBE board unanimously gave Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell authority to settle one key suit within certain parameters. The board hadn’t consulted with lawmakers, so when the proposed settlement was announced, Senate Leader Phil Berger went ballistic, calling it “a full-frontal assault” on laws designed to curb election fraud. 

The next day, the two GOP members of the elections board resigned, saying they had been misled about the impact of the proposed settlement. The wife of one subsequently posted on Facebook that they had been told to step down by GOP leaders.

That opened the door for the party to install two new members. By law, the party that came in second in the last gubernatorial election gets to nominate two board members, putting up three names for each seat. The governor’s party gets to nominate members for three seats. The governor chooses the members from among the nominees.

Cooper urged the GOP to be quick in its nominations; the names were on his desk the following day.

Other than Tucker and McLamb, the nominees were: the president of the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law; an engineer and lawyer who is a senior fellow of the conservative John Locke Foundation; a Watauga County lawyer who has served on both local and state elections boards; and a former state senator from Guilford County.

“These disputes could have a consequential impact not only on who wins but on whose votes get counted. It’s a perfect storm.”

Michael Bitzer, professor of political science, Catawba College

Ten days passed before the governor named his picks. In the meantime, the legal proceedings ricocheted back and forth between state and federal courts, with many days seeing a reversal of the previous day’s action. The GOP took the opportunity to lob new broadsides at the board and lambaste Cooper for the delay in filling the seats.

A statement issued Sept. 29 accused “the 100% Democratic-controlled NCSBE” of issuing “sham guidance” to local elections officials on how to handle some processes at issue in the courts.

Tuesday’s appointments closed one chapter in the saga, but coming months are ripe with possibilities for a fresh outbreak of hostilities. Most critically, in North Carolina’s system, the NCSBE has the all-important task of certifying the winner of the presidential vote, the step that determines whether the Republican or Democratic slate of electors will participate in the Electoral College.

For weeks, President Donald Trump and his allies have signaled that they may try to stop the counting of ballots or challenge the election results if he appears to be losing. That could put the NCSBE squarely in the center of a battle with incalculable effects.

“These disputes could have a consequential impact not only on who wins but on whose votes get counted,” Bitzer said. “It’s a perfect storm.”

Election oversight differs from most states

The federal government has only a limited role in overseeing elections, even for federal offices such as the presidency. Most of the responsibility and the power rests with the states, and states have come up with a variety of ways to manage the electoral process.

The most common system puts oversight in the hands of the secretary of state, who is generally elected, although some are appointed.

North Carolina is one of nine states in which an appointed board controls the electoral machinery, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The board selects the executive director, who is the state’s top elections administrator. In theory, the board’s job is to see that elections run smoothly; in practice, the agency itself has become a frequent locus of disruption.

“Differences in policies and perspectives get fought out within the administrative structure,” Bitzer said.

Not only that, said political scientist Chris Cooper, “You’ve got a system run by two parties in a state where ‘unaffiliated’ will soon be the largest bloc.”

The structural tensions are amplified by the state’s political dynamics. North Carolina is closely divided between Republicans and Democrats; it is among a handful of states with the potential to tip the scale in national elections; one party controls the executive branch, and the other controls the legislature; the configuration of districts at both the state and federal levels gives an advantage to the GOP, which had the upper hand in drawing them.

To top it all off, the two parties are at war over the act of voting itself. As a general rule, when more people vote, Democrats win. When fewer people vote, Republicans win.

Anything the state board does that makes it easier or harder to vote is going to advantage one party and disadvantage the other.

Struggle over board makeup

The roots of the current conflict go back to 2010, when tea-party-backed GOP candidates gained the ascendancy in the statehouse. The infighting ramped up after Roy Cooper narrowly won the governorship in 2016.

Before that, the NCSBE was configured as it is now. It had five members, nominated by the state parties, with the party that controlled the governor’s mansion having the majority of seats. But after Cooper defeated incumbent Pat McCrory, and before he could take office, the legislature pushed through a raft of bills diminishing the governor’s power.

Three bodies — the elections board, the ethics commission and the office that oversees lobbying — were combined into one, with a nine-member board. Four members were nominated by each party, and the ninth chosen by the board itself. That stripped the governor of his sway over the agency.

Cooper sued, and the ensuing legal battle bounced from the courts to the legislature and back again until, in 2018, the governor ultimately prevailed. The NCSBE reverted to its old form, this time with Democrats holding the majority of seats.

Last year, in a party-line vote, the board fired Executive Director Kim Strach, a holdover from the McCrory years, and hired Brinson Bell. And now the state GOP has Brinson Bell in its crosshairs.

If all of that makes your head spin, beware of what lies ahead. All indications are that the weeks following the Nov. 3 vote could be every bit as wild as what we’ve seen so far.

Update

Before two new members could take their seats on the North Carolina State Board of Elections, Gov. Cooper withdrew the appointment of McLamb in response to anonymous online allegations by a woman who described herself as a former girlfriend.

McLamb issued a statement denying the allegations but saying he agreed that the board does not need further distractions.

In lieu of McLamb, Cooper appointed Stacy “Four” Eggers, a Watauga County lawyer who served for eight years on the county elections board.

Victoria Loe Hicks

Victoria Loe Hicks is a contributing writer to Carolina Public Press who is based in Mitchell County. She has previously written for The Dallas Morning News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She is also a CPP board member. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her or other members of the Carolina Public Press news team.

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