Colin Campbell: Let’s Take Politics Out of Administering NC’s Elections

Colin Campbell

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper wants to take politics out of the redistricting process, but he also thinks he should control elections administration in North Carolina.

Legislative Republicans, meanwhile, want to take partisanship out of the elections board, but they’re determined to keep it in the process of drawing legislative and congressional districts.

None of this is surprising: The old adage, “to the victor go the spoils,” has always applied to partisan politics. Efforts to end gerrymandering have been going on in this state for decades — Republicans filed bills to create an independent redistricting process when they were in the minority.

But those bills die a quick death now that the GOP is in power. Democrats like Cooper have vowed to change that if they regain the majority, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Control over the state’s elections board is a newer fight. For a long time, the governor’s party has held the majority of seats on the board. That hasn’t historically posed many problems, but we’re now in a hyperpartisan, tribalistic environment — and there’s ample opportunity for political monkey business on the elections board.

The N.C. Republican Party lobbied hard in 2016 to end early voting on Sundays, a popular time for African-American churches to organize “souls to the polls” events. That effort, designed to reduce Democratic turnout, was only rebuffed because one of the three GOP elections board appointees refused to tow the party line.

An elections board controlled by Democrats could, theoretically, reduce early voting opportunities in rural and suburban communities that have a Republican majority. And both parties might try to quash campaign finance violations against politicians from their side.

The N.C. Supreme Court, however, rejected in a party-line decision the legislature’s attempt to create a “bipartisan” elections board with an even number of Republicans and Democrats. The court found that the governor is entitled to an elections board that can carry out his “policy preferences,” and while a three-judge panel is deciding exactly how to implement the ruling, both sides in the lawsuit have jockeyed for position.

For months, the pending lawsuit has created an awkward power vacuum with no elections board, all while the country faces hacking threats can could harm the integrity of our democratic process.

The Cooper administration, apparently unwilling to wait until new elections board members can be appointed, issued directives to non-political elections staffers. Cooper has been vague on what he thinks those staffers should be doing, and when one of them asked if the merged elections and ethics agency is now “dissolved,” no clear answers were provided.

Republicans have accused Cooper of inappropriate meddling in elections administration. They’re asking the court to approve a tweak to their bipartisan board concept that would add a ninth member who isn’t affiliated with either major party. That person would be nominated by the Republican and Democratic board members — likely resulting in a moderate voice to resolve partisan deadlocks.

That would deprive Cooper of some of the power enjoyed by his predecessor, Republican Pat McCrory. And there’s no doubt Republicans wouldn’t be pushing a bipartisan board if McCrory had won a second term.

But an elections board that can’t be controlled by Republican or Democratic party bosses is exactly what North Carolina needs right now. Voters need to know that the system isn’t rigged, that parties won’t try to impede their access to the ballot box, and that corrupt politicians who break campaign finance laws will be held accountable.

If the court rejects the legislature’s proposal to modify the bipartisan board, legislators should try the idea as a constitutional amendment — letting voters decide in a referendum. While they’re at it, maybe they can let voters decide if a nonpartisan redistricting system should be enshrined in the state constitution as well.

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<i>Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.</i>