New law raises concerns

Published 2:49 pm Thursday, April 27, 2017

On Tuesday, the North Carolina General Assembly overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 68, thereby merging the North Carolina State Board of Elections and the State Ethics Commission. The veto and override came as no surprise.

The new law, according to Republicans who pushed the legislation through the General Assembly, creates a bipartisan body to oversee elections and handle ethics-related matters across the state. Democrats, who fought the legislation, contend the new law is just another move by the GOP to strip Cooper, a Democrat, of powers his predecessor, Republican Pat McCrory, enjoyed. It’s a case of sour grapes because the GOP lost the governorship, Democrats argue.

The new law raises concerns at the state level and local level.

Counties’ boards of elections will increase from three members to four members (two Democrats and two Republicans) under the new law, with three votes needed for a county board to make a decision. In effect, giving each party a veto. At the state board level, five votes would be required to make a decision.

With the state and local boards having an equal number of members from the two political parties, deadlocks could prevent those boards from making decisions such as relocating polling places, determining schedules for early voting and increasing or decreasing the number of precincts in a county.

Under the new law, a Republican chairman would be in place during even-numbered years for county boards and in presidential-election years for the state board, meaning the GOP would control the state and county boards during major election cycles.

Opponents of the new law argue that Republican legislators changed the composition of the local and state boards to give their party power over all elections-related determinations. Supporters of the new law contend the merger of the elections board and ethics board will result in improved efficiency in handling elections and ethics issues. Maybe, maybe not.

Democracy North Carolina, in a statement issued earlier this week, noted, “No new money is appropriated to fund the combined agencies, which separately were already overwhelmed with their workloads. The backlog and mistakes by overworked local and state personnel will harm voters’ confidence in the integrity of elections and ethics oversight.” That’s a good point.

History indicates the former arrangement — a state elections board and a state ethics commission — worked well. A recent report by the State Board of Elections, which has a Republican majority, shows few problems with voting irregularities in the state.

If it’s not broken, why fix it?