Lawsuit challenges elections boards’ ban on unaffiliated voters

Published 4:29 pm Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A North Carolina attorney involved in election and voting matters over the years is challenging the state law that prohibits unaffiliated voters from serving on the state and county boards of elections.

Michael Crowell, who was involved in the lawsuit that resulted in the limited-voting system used to elect Beaufort County commissioners, is suing the state over its new Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, saying the new law creating the new board violates his rights to equal protection under the law, freedom of association and freedom of speech. Crowell, a Carborro resident, is registered as an unaffiliated voter.

Crowell filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. Another lawsuit challenges Senate Bill 68 (the legislation that created the new board). Crowell’s lawsuit is the third challenging the merging of the State Board of Elections and the State Ethics Commission. Crowell wants the court to declare the new law unconstitutional and void. No response to the lawsuit had been filed as of Friday.

“The governor hasn’t named members to the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, so the board hasn’t taken a position. The Attorney General’s office represents this agency in that case,” wrote SBOE spokesman Patrick Gannon in an email.

Crowell’s lawsuit notes there has never been an unaffiliated voter on the State Board of Elections and currently there are no unaffiliated voters on any of the 100 county boards of elections. Crowell also contends he is qualified to serve on the state board, and he lists those qualifications.

Under the new law, the Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement will include eight members — four Democrats and four Republicans appointed by the governor from a list of nominations from each state party chairman. County boards of election were expanded to four members, to be appointed by the state board from nominations by the Democratic and Republican parties, with equal numbers from each party, the lawsuit states.

As of June 24, there were 2,035,119 unaffiliated voters registered in North Carolina, according to the State Board of Elections website. There were 2639,348 Democrats and 2,052,602 Republicans registered to vote in the state as of June 24. The number of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina has grown significantly in the past 10 years, according to SBOE data.

Since 2008 in Beaufort County, the number of voters registered as Democrats has continued to decline steadily. The number of voters who are registered as Republicans continues to show sustained growth. By far, the biggest change has been in the number of voters who apply the unaffiliated status to their party status.

And it’s been a big change. From 2008 through 2016, the number of Beaufort County voters who listed themselves as unaffiliated increase from 5,646 to 8,631, an increase of 52.8 percent.

In the eight-year period of 2008 through 2016, the number of Beaufort County voters who listed their political party as Democrat, declined from 16,822 to 13,862, a drop of 17.5 percent.

From 2008 through 2016, the number of Republican voters in Beaufort County increased from 9,678 to 10,811, a growth of 11.7 percent.

In some counties — Camden, Currituck, Dare, Henderson, New Hanover, Polk, Transylvania and Watauga — there were more unaffiliated voters registered than either Democrats or Republicans.

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. Some Democrats have argued it’s a case of sour grapes because the GOP lost the governorship.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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