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N.C. elections agency needs a boss

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Imagine if your bosses got fired, and for more than six months, no one replaced them. You’re not allowed to perform the tasks that your bosses do, so you’re stuck trying to keep things running without much authority.

Since June, that’s been the reality for the state agency charged with overseeing North Carolina elections. Gov. Roy Cooper is battling legislative leaders in court over a law that changes the composition of the state elections board, which governs the agency. Legislators want the board to have an even number of appointees from the two major political parties, while Cooper wants to keep the old system where the governor’s party has a majority.

The courts allowed parts of the new law to take effect this spring, but judges told Cooper he doesn’t have to make any appointments until the lawsuit is resolved. So he hasn’t, and the board that ensures the wheels of democracy roll smoothly has been sitting vacant since June. The N.C. Supreme Court hasn’t yet held a hearing on the case, so a ruling could still be months away.

Fortunately, 2017 didn’t include any statewide elections. But the vacant elections board is wreaking havoc on several local elections where problems have emerged in the week’s since the November election. The most troubling example involves a mayoral election in Sharpsburg, a small town between Wilson and Rocky Mount that happens to be split between three counties.

Voters in the Wilson County section of town were required to drive six miles to another town to vote — only to find out that the polling place had run out of ballots. It took more than two hours for more ballots to be printed and delivered, and by that time many voters had left. Some returned later, some didn’t.

In the past, similar problems have prompted the state elections board to extend voting hours. The media spreads the word, and voters get a few extra evening hours to come back and cast ballots. But without a state elections board, that didn’t happen.

Several voters, many of them African-American, say they were deprived of their right to vote because of the ballot shortage. Their preferred candidate, Robert Williams, lost by just three votes, and there’s a good chance the outcome might have been different if voting hours were extended.

Now Williams — with help from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice — is calling for a new election. The Wilson County Board of Elections determined there’s “probable cause” for Williams’ request, and it will hold a formal hearing later this month. But here’s the problem: County elections boards can’t order a new election, they just make recommendations. That authority belongs to — wait for it — the state elections board, which doesn’t currently exist.

Elections board attorneys say requests for new elections should be forwarded to Wake County Superior Court, which typically would handle appeals of elections board decisions. But an attorney seeking a new election in Boone argues that approach won’t pass legal muster. Instead, he’s calling on Cooper to appoint elections board members and says the election can’t be resolved until there’s a new elections board.

So what’s the problem in Boone? Another issue stemming from the vacant state board, which wasn’t around to settle a dispute over early voting locations. That dispute got sent to the court system, which issued a last-minute ruling that meant early voting sites weren’t publicized in advance. That’s prompted a request for a new election there.

Both the Sharpsburg and Boone complaints could be easily resolved if only the elections agency had bosses. A temporary resolution that fills the elections board — at least on an interim basis pending a ruling — is long overdue. And it’s up to Cooper, the boss of the state, to make appointments or seek permission from the courts to allow him to make temporary appointments. No pressure, governor, but democracy is depending on it.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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