In the last days of 2016, the Republican supermajority held several special sessions, pushing last-minute bills through to then-Governor Pat McCrory’s desk. This legislation, which sparked a public outcry from Democrats, included House Bill 17, which decreased the power of the office of the Governor, Senate Bill 4 (SB4), which overhauled the state election and ethics system, and the failed attempt to ‘repeal’ House Bill 2.
Representative Susi Hamilton was among those specifically upset with SB4, saying, “The measures included in SB4 are not only unnecessary, but insulting to the sitting board members at the state and county levels.”
The bill would liquidate the current State Board of Elections, which is an executive agency with members appointed by the governor. It its place, SB4 would create an independent agency, with members appointed by the governor and by each house of the General Assembly. At the county level, it would change the three-member panel to a four-member panel, with membership split – by law – between Democrats and Republicans (or, in theory, whichever the two highest-polling political parties in the county were).
The ire of assembly members like Hamilton is directed at the implication of partisan malfeasance in Boards of Election around the state. Speaking of the New Hanover County BOE, Hamilton said, “The BOE members handled the recent contested gubernatorial election with professionalism and integrity, a testament to the effectiveness of the current system we operate under.”
Some Republicans disagree with this implication. State Senator Michael Lee told Port City Daily, “I would just say it’s good policy. For a long time the legislature has been asking the Board of Elections to create some rules, some provisions for ethical conduct. This is a long overdue overhaul. It’s good policy to create a balanced system. It’s not a referendum on the quality of county boards, or the state board. For me, from my perspective, those boards have done their job.”
At the same time, however, the implication that SB4 is a response to allegations of misconduct by county Election Boards has been reinforced by last week’s statement by Republican Phil Berger, the Senate leader, which read: “Given the recent weeks-long uncertainty surrounding his own election, the governor-elect should understand better than anyone why North Carolinians deserve a system they can trust will settle election outcomes fairly and without the taint of partisanship.”
Now, major parts of SB4 (and HB17) are being held up by a court injunction that was sustained on Friday, Jan. 6, by a three-judge panel, who are currently debating the bill’s fate. Their decision will very likely be challenged by the losing political party, as the SB4 vote fell along stark party lines.
Governor Cooper’s challenge highlights the potential issue here in New Hanover County. As part of his lawsuit against SB4, Cooper issued a statement that read in part: “This complex new law passed in just two days by the Republican legislature is unconstitutional and anything but bipartisan. A tie on a partisan vote would accomplish what many Republicans want: making it harder for North Carolinians to vote.”
Derek Bowens, director of elections, did not share Cooper’s apprehension.
“I don’t think that [SB4] will create deadlock,” Bowens said. “The State Ethics Commission has been operating under an eight-member structure, split evenly by party, for years and they have appeared to do so amiably. I think on the vast majority of issues, it will not create a stalemate.”
Democrat Board of Election Member and Parliamentarian Tom Pollard agreed, saying, “Based on my experience, many of the things we consider are non-controversial. And by non-controversial I mean, approving judges, certifying election results.”
On more controversial topics, including last year’s split decision to break with state statutes and certify election results ahead of a state recount, Pollard pointed to Board’s measured approach.
“When it came to thornier issues, the local board has done a good job,” Pollard said. “we respect each other’s opinions. I don’t know that having another member would fundamentally alter that. There would be another point of view, and maybe more discussion.”
Pollard’s view of the current board seems accurate in view of the recent, even-handed treatment of the contentious election cycle. However, in the past, the board has been the scene of acrimonious partisan disputes, including those between former members Republican John Ferrante and Democrat Tannis Nelson. Disputes of that nature could indeed, as Cooper suggests, divide the board along partisan lines and paralyze it. Only time will tell if future boards will be cooperative diplomatic, like the current board, or partisan.
Though the appeal process for SB4 could take time, it will have to be resolved this year. The Supreme Court has ordered North Carolina to re-draw its legislative districts by March 15, with elections to follow in November. In other words, with the Board of Election system still up in the air, we are already in an election year.