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O'Connor: Room for independents in elections process

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

History is full of good ideas launched with not very good blueprints.

Take the airplane.

Many early plane designs ended in disaster before aviation tinkerers figured out flight. Go to Youtube and watch. My favorite three are the bicycles with flapping wings, the seven-winger, and the early automobile using a pulsating lawn umbrella for lift.

In their late-December rush to make the governor's office meaningless before Roy Cooper took his oath, Republican legislators might have actually stumbled upon a good idea. As constructed, however, it's likely to collapse, as did the seven-winged plane, once it gets to the state Supreme Court, if not before.

Their idea: Take control of state elections away from the governor's party and give each of the two major parties an equal number of seats on those boards.

This is not to agree with Republicans that there has been rampant voter fraud in the state or that the 2016 system doesn't have its merits. To the contrary, we just saw an election where the governor's party controlled the elections boards and, in a tight vote count, those boards sided with the challenger, Cooper.

But we also saw examples, in some counties, of outrageous attempts to limit voting hours and to move voting booths away from likely Democratic voters. Anyone who witnessed such behavior has a legitimate reason to fear that partisan-controlled boards will rig elections.

Maybe, if neither party controls the boards, we'll be less likely to experience such shenanigans. Deadlock, however, is a real possibility with four-to-four votes. (And the legislation makes deadlock more likely with a requirement of six votes to move forward.)

The remedy is something called the odd number. It can't be divided by two, so unless someone doesn't come to the meeting, an odd-numbered board won't deadlock.

And the perfect choice to be that odd-numbered member of the board is a verified, registered independent voter. Actually, given the surge of unaffiliated registrations, maybe there should be three independents on the board.

That raises the question, however, of who picks the independent members. I have to think about that, but my proposal is that to be considered for a seat reserved for an independent, a voter would have had to have been registered as unaffiliated for at least good amount of time and have participated in the primaries of two parties while so registered.

On Jan. 1, there were 2,076,347 independent voters in North Carolina and they have no representation on the elections boards. (On the same day, there were 2,736,116 registered Democrats and 2,099,555 registered Republicans.)

Maybe an even better idea would be to have five independent members and two from each party.

No matter the configuration, it's a step in the right direction. Put it with a truly independent redistricting commission and North Carolina will take a huge step toward wresting control of the elections process from the people who are running for office, towards an impartial system designed to assure free, fair and open elections.

And, while we're at it, maybe the legislature can loosen the rules for third parties and independents. Democrats and Republicans may not agree on much in this state, but they do agree that they don't want any more competition.

The Republican elections law should be discarded, but it includes an idea that could start real reform.

Paul T. O'Connor has covered state government for 39 years.

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