North Carolina Republicans seek to strip Democrat governor of elections board control
Published 11:42 am Thursday, June 15, 2023
By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press
North Carolina Senate Republicans filed legislation Monday to strip Gov. Roy Cooper of power to appoint State Board of Elections members, intensifying a yearslong struggle over state government powers between the GOP-led General Assembly and the Democratic governor.
The unveiling of the bill came almost two hours after a panel Cooper created recommended changes designed to ease the current GOP dominance of University of North Carolina governing boards.
The dueling proposals escalate the clash between Cooper and the General Assembly to reshape the balance of power within government in the final weeks of the year’s main legislative session. Still, Republicans maintain the upper hand after regaining veto-proof control of the legislature in April.
The current state board has five members appointed by the governor — three Democrats and two Republicans from candidate lists made by state party leaders.
Under the GOP bill filed Monday, legislative leaders would appoint all eight members. The Senate leader, House speaker and House and Senate minority leaders would pick two apiece but wouldn’t be obligated to choose from the party’s nominations — raising the possibility that unaffiliated voters could serve.
The board administers elections in the ninth-largest state, a presidential battleground where over 7 million voters are registered and statewide elections are usually close.
Republicans say having an even number of members will support consensus building on the board. They’ve complained often about the Democratic-controlled board entering a legal settlement in 2020 over absentee ballot rules that the GOP says ignored state laws.
“The voters of North Carolina should have faith that members of the Board of Elections can work together to conduct free and fair elections without any perception of bias,” Sen. Warren Daniel of Burke County, a bill sponsor, said at a Legislative Building news conference.
The bill is scheduled for committee debate Wednesday. Senate leader Phil Berger told reporters that House GOP counterparts support the state board appointment changes. The bill also would direct legislative leaders from both parties to pick four-member election boards for all 100 counties. Berger’s office said expected amendments would make the state board changes happen immediately and the county board changes effective in 2024.
In a news release, Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat, called the bill a “power grab, plain and simple” that “would create more gridlock and uncertainty in our elections system.”
Cooper sued over previous state election board laws approved since late 2016, and courts ruled in his favor. saying the board’s compositions by the GOP prevented him from having control over carrying out elections laws. Registered Republicans now hold a 5-2 seat majority on the state Supreme Court.
Separate legislation being negotiated by House and Senate Republicans this year also would take more appointment powers away from governors on several key state boards, including state and local community college boards. GOP leaders have said more accountability and diversity of thought are needed on important boards that Cooper’s appointees control.
Speaking to unveil recommendations of a blue-ribbon commission led by former UNC system presidents Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, Cooper said he hoped Republicans would now also consider seriously its suggestions to diversify the UNC Board of Governors and trustee boards at 16 campuses.
“Here the legislature controls pretty much everything in higher education. So diversifying appointment authority here is a good idea,” Cooper said at an Executive Mansion news conference. “I don’t know why it wouldn’t be here if it is there.”
For 50 years, the legislature has chosen the voting members of the system Board of Governors — with half of the current 24 elected by the House and the other half by the Senate. In the 2010s, Republicans filled the board with like-minded members and ultimately pushed out Ross and later Spellings from the presidency. The legislature also stripped from the governor appointments to campus trustee boards.
Cooper and others argue that the boards need to better reflect the state’s population as it relates to race, gender and political views.
The commission recommended the General Assembly keep electing UNC Board of Governors members, but that lawmakers return to electing 32 members as they did for decades. The minority party in the two chambers would get to select combined eight of those members. Sixteen members would be picked from specific regions of the state. The panel also recommended that the governor get to pick four of the 15 seats on UNC campus trustee boards, but that wouldn’t take effect until January 2025, after Cooper leaves office.