The Republicans who rule North Carolina’s General Assembly from their high supermajority perch want to make voting more difficult because they think that on balance, this gives them a leg up when the ballots are counted. As to the self-evident notion that they’re subverting a pillar of our democratic system, they apparently couldn’t care less.
This attack on the right to vote includes frontal assaults such as tighter rules for mail-in ballots and complex photo ID requirements. Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed the main vehicle for those changes, Senate Bill 747, but his fellow Democrats lack the votes to sustain that veto in the face of a Republican-led override.
Another major bill headed for Cooper’s desk takes an indirect approach toward the same cynical goal of advancing Republican interests by making the election system less efficient and less voter-friendly. It involves a blanket restructuring of the state’s system of election boards – those bodies that manage elections and ensure they are conducted honestly and fairly.
Under the proposed set-up, there’s virtually no chance that elections would run more smoothly or that the integrity of the system would be enhanced. Quite the opposite, in fact. So what’s the purpose? Clearly, it’s all about partisan advantage — which makes the ostensible rationale for Senate Bill 749 all the more breathtakingly disingenuous.
The bill’s title, “No Partisan Advantage in Elections,” is the sort of double-speak that would draw a rueful chuckle from George Orwell, the English author who zeroed in on the abuses of language in the service of authoritarianism.
It’s true that for decades, North Carolina law has provided that the State Board of Elections and the 100 county boards each have a one-person majority of members aligned with the political party of the incumbent governor. The governor also has controlled appointments to those boards, in keeping with the principle that election administration is properly a function of the executive branch.
Legislative Republicans claim that with Cooper in the governor’s mansion, election oversight is carried out with a pro-Democratic Party twist, or at least can be suspected of furthering a Democratic agenda.
What that agenda is – other than ensuring that every qualified person has a fair, reasonably convenient chance to cast a vote that’s sure to be accurately counted – remains a mystery. But the Republican remedy, which is to split the membership of each board into equal halves, Republican and Democratic, with all appointments flowing from the legislature itself, amounts to a brazenly partisan thrust in its own right. That’s because it could easily lead to tie votes, in other words stalemates, on key decisions such as whether to certify election results or the location of early voting sites.
All tied up
Since a tie means no “affirmative decision,” as S.B. 749’s sponsors acknowledge, that could become a path toward disruptive gridlock. A close election with a Democratic candidate ahead could be cast into limbo by GOP board members straining to see non-existent irregularities that resulted in valid votes being thrown out.
Or, if an evenly divided board couldn’t agree on an early voting schedule or where that voting would take place, a county might be limited to the single site that is the legally required minimum. That possibility was highlighted during the Sept. 19 debate that led to House passage of the bill, as Democratic Rep. Maria Cervania of Cary spoke of early voting’s popularity and warned of the chaos that would accompany the loss of early voting options in her town.
Of course, if board members at every level operated in good faith to ensure that elections took place smoothly and with ample opportunities for qualified voters, the half-and-half partisan split might not be a problem.
But too many Republicans – taking their cue from former President Trump and his baseless but incessant attacks on the election system as being rigged against him – appear willing to bollix up what has been an orderly and fair election process so as to help him avenge his 2020 loss and regain the White House next year. A victory, it could be added, that might well be his best hope of dodging penalties for a host of alleged crimes.
This is the bitter alienation that Trump has fostered among his allies as he has poisoned many Americans’ faith in democracy. He’s even said it straight out: Republicans can’t win if all the votes are counted.
Perhaps it’s more accurate that they can’t win so long as all the votes are counted and the Republicans continue to base their campaigns on sore losers’ grievances, racism-tinged anti-“wokeness,” disrespect for women’s autonomy, and twisted, anti-democratic nationalism.
By exerting control over election board appointments, the legislature would extend a relentless campaign dating back to the last months of 2016, before Cooper even took office, to strip him of powers that help him fulfill his duty to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed.
Some of those efforts were blocked by the courts on grounds that they violated the principle of separation of powers among the governmental branches. But that was then, and this is now, when the state Supreme Court has fallen into the clutches of Republican justices who seem to think that no legislative power-grab can go too far.
With that wind at their backs, legislators have fixed their sights on the state elections board’s able executive director, Karen Brinson Bell, who in 2020 committed the cardinal sin of helping to make voting safer during the pandemic.
By invoking emergency powers to make it easier to vote by mail, Bell helped voters of whichever party avoid crowded polling places and thus minimize their COVID exposure. Guess what: It was Democratic voters, using common sense despite Trump’s denunciation of mailed ballots and belittling of COVID dangers, who upheld North Carolina’s status as a so-called purple state that could elect a Democratic governor while also giving Trump a narrow edge. Now it’s Bell who is the legislature’s persona non grata.
S.B. 749 specifies that the newly constituted board will have until July 15, 2024 to pick an executive director. If there’s a deadlock, the post will be filled, not by the governor, but via appointment by the president pro tem of the Senate, who now is Republican Sen. Phil Berger of Eden. Fat chance the successful candidate would rate as dependably “bipartisan.”
A potentially disruptive leadership change atop the state’s election oversight agency would be echoed throughout the ranks of local election boards as new members chosen by top legislators were installed. Seats would be divided between the two major parties, and party officials would make recommendations. It’s hard to see how the public interest would be served by having next year’s complicated and consequential elections overseen by folks for whom this might be their first rodeo.
S.B. 749 has been approved on party-line votes in both legislative chambers. The Senate on Sept. 20 failed to concur with the House’s changes, so sponsors from each side were named as conferees to resolve the differences. Whatever they decide, there’s scarcely any prospect that the bill will avoid Cooper’s veto. And because of Republicans’ narrow but so far rock-solid supermajority, there’s also scarcely any prospect that the bill won’t eventually become law.
This legislative masterpiece then will take its place with other “election integrity” initiatives, both giving Trump cover for his discredited complaints about 2020 and helping him if he’s on the ballot next year, as he desperately wants to be. Even if Trump’s candidacy is derailed, GOP strategy seems rooted in efforts to hold down the overall number of votes.
It’s a strategy that drips with contempt for our country’s democratic principles, as elusive in practice as those principles often have been. The well-being of all our citizens, including the struggling and marginalized who are a special concern within the N.C. Council of Churches, depends on voters of all perspectives summoning the resolve to do better.