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Ten percent of county election boards, including Pitt, have empty seats

071317roycooper

Gov. Roy Cooper is challenging a law adopted by the General Assembly last year that weakens his appointment powers to the State Board of Elections. The result is 10 percent of the state's county board of elections can't operate because they lack a quorum.

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Pitt County Board of Elections and nine other boards across the state cannot conduct business because of Gov. Roy Cooper's attempts to reverse a law that changed the formation of the state and local election boards.

Ten percent of the state's county boards — Pitt, Carteret, Chowan, Cumberland, Edgecombe, Jones, Lincoln, Perquimans, Transylvania and Vance — are made up of three members and each has had a member step down this year. This prevents them from voting on issues needed to prepare for the upcoming municipal elections because they lack quorums.

Under new election rules approved by the General Assembly in December, and currently being challenged by Cooper in the state Supreme Court, these boards lack a quorum and are unable to vote on issues related to the upcoming municipal elections.

Among these issues are the approval of precinct chief judges which must be done in August, said Dave Davis, Pitt County elections director.

For municipalities that hold elections in September, early voting begins in August, so local early voting plans need to be finalized in the near future.

Pitt County's 10 municipalities all hold elections in November, which means early voting will begin Oct. 19.

While there is no deadline for finalizing early voting details such as polling locations, the Pitt County Board of Elections has traditionally finalized its plans in late summer, Davis said.

“This is all behind the scenes, it's not going to affect the voters. It's just headaches for those of us in the office,” Davis said. “Voters are going to be able to vote.”

The rules adopted by the General Assembly last year guide the makeup and appointment of the state Board of Elections and county election boards. The new rules weaken the governor's authority over those appointments.

The governor traditionally appoints all members of the state elections board with the majority coming from the governor's political party. The state elections board then appoints the members of local boards from individuals recommended by the Democratic and Republican parties. The majority of members of local boards also come from the governor's political party.

The new rules create an eight-person State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement with half the members appointed by the governor and the other half appointed by the General Assembly. County boards would consist of four members, two Democrats and two Republicans appointed by the state board.

Cooper sued to prevent the change. In mid-June, the N.C. Court of Appeals denied Cooper's request to put the changes on hold. Cooper has asked the state Supreme Court to intervene.

Pitt County's elections board, which had three members under the old rules, found itself reduced to two when member Mark Stewart resigned after being appointed chairman of the Pitt County Republican Party.

“The boards with two members cannot hold meetings because they cannot make quorum,” said Patrick Gannon, a spokesman with the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. “Counties without three members are directed to follow their usual business practices as to all matters that do not require a direct vote of the board.”

Along with approving precinct chief judges, Pitt County's elections board has to approve the use of Eastern Pines Fire-Rescue-EMS as the voting site for the Simpson A precinct, Davis said. The building is located outside the Simpson A precinct boundaries but has the necessary size and security measures to house a polling location. It can be used as long as the board approves it, Davis said.

The local board also has to finalize early voting plans, Davis said.

There is a written agreement that the county's 10 municipalities will pay the local elections board to operate two early voting sites, one at the center at Alice Keene Park on County Home Road and the other at the Pitt County Agricultural Center on Government Circle, Davis said. The city of Greenville funds two additional voting sites at the Willis Building and Pitt Area Transit System offices in the county office building off West Fifth Street, Davis said. There also is discussion about the town of Winterville funding an early voting site at the community room in the town's fire-rescue building.

Technically, the elections board must vote to approve this arrangement, Davis said. Without a vote, the municipalities may have to follow the state's minimum requirement that one early voting site be open in the county election board office during regular business hours which would be 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m.-1 p.m. on the Saturday before election day, Davis said.

Pitt County should be able to continue its early voting plan because the county has a written agreement with the municipalities, he said.

Gannon said the executive director of the state elections office, Kim Westbrook Strach, “will do everything she can to ensure all counties with municipal elections this year are able to carry them out.”

Attempts to reach Cooper's public information office on Wednesday for comment were unsuccessful.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570. Follow her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.

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