North Carolina Republicans override governor’s veto on key election law

North Carolina Republican lawmakers on Tuesday overrode the Democratic governor’s veto of a bill that overhauls who runs elections and achieves a long-sought goal of the state’s GOP.

The legislation creates bipartisan boards that could deadlock on establishing early voting locations or certifying results in a state that may prove crucial in next year’s presidential election.

Democrats and election experts warn the changes risk creating dysfunction in 2024, with Gov. Roy Cooper saying they “could doom our state’s elections to gridlock and severely limit early voting.”

The legislation, he said in his veto of the bill last month, “also creates a grave risk that Republican legislators or courts would be empowered to change the results of an election if they don’t like the winner.”

Republicans contend the bill helps guarantee elections will be run fairly by establishing bipartisan election boards that will take politics out of the process.

“When it comes to agencies doing their jobs, politics ought to not be part of it,” House Speaker Tim Moore (R) said in a recent podcast appearance.

Republicans have tried for years to remake the state elections board but came up against obstacles, including court decisions and a rejection from voters. Their three-fifths majorities in the state legislature now give them the power to override vetoes, which they did in the state Senate on Tuesday with a 30-19 vote and in the House with a 72-44 vote. Litigation is all but certain to follow.

Currently, state and county election boards are controlled by the party of the governor, which means in recent years they have been run by Democrats. Under the GOP legislation, state lawmakers will appoint boards with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.

The legislation doesn’t spell out how the boards will resolve most deadlocks. Some Republicans have said courts will have to figure out what to do if the state elections board fails to certify an election because Republicans and Democrats are at odds.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty around what will happen with ties,” said Christopher Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “That kind of confusion is not going to help trust in the system.”

Cooper, who is not related to the governor, said voters in North Carolina will see a new election landscape next year because of decisions made in recent months. They will have new legislative and congressional districts, a new voter ID law, new timelines for voting by mail and, in some locations, new early voting sites.

“That’s a lot of change,” he said. “And communicating any one part of that to citizens is going to be extremely difficult in any environment, particularly one like this.”

Anderson Clayton, the chairwoman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said the measure represented a “dire threat” that would limit voting options on college campuses and in large cities. That will create long lines that will deter some voters, she said.

“No one wants to wait in a line to go vote,” she said. “It’s not something that is really encouraging people that a process is working and that something is effective.”

Moore, the House speaker, did not respond to interview requests but recently told a podcast for the cable television network Spectrum News that bipartisan boards would foster cooperation.

“When it comes to administering our elections, that should be above reproach,” he said. “It should not have a partisan advantage to either side.”

In addition to the law governing election boards, Republican lawmakers overrode the veto of a bill that ends an extended deadline for submitting absentee ballots and empowers partisan poll watchers. Republicans have the power to override vetoes because they locked in three-fifths majorities in April when state Rep. Tricia Cotham dropped her Democratic affiliation and became a Republican.

Republican lawmakers first sought to change the makeup of the state elections board in 2016 with a law they passed after Cooper was elected governor but before he was sworn in. When a court blocked the law, they passed a modified version of it that was struck down by the North Carolina Supreme Court for violating the state constitution.

GOP lawmakers in 2018 asked voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution that would have reshaped the state elections board. Voters rejected the idea with 62 percent of the vote.

Republicans passed their latest bill to change election boards last month. In Cooper’s veto of the measure, he alluded to the actions of former president Donald Trump after he lost the 2020 election in arguing the bill would make it easier for lawmakers or courts to try to reverse voting results.

“That’s a serious threat to our democracy, particularly after the nation just saw a presidential candidate try to strong-arm state officials into reversing his losing election result,” Cooper said at the time.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Newton (R) said during Tuesday’s floor debate that the measure was important because it makes election boards “truly and literally bipartisan.”

“This structure does not favor a party nor does it favor a single elected official and thus the inherent fairness should help restore voter confidence,” he said.

State Sen. Natalie Murdock (D) disputed that contention, saying the bill would likely limit opportunities to vote.

“This bill was never about strengthening our elections,” she said on the floor. “It’s about a power grab.”

Tuesday’s override sets the stage for the bill to go into effect starting Jan. 1. Lawsuits are expected, but the makeup of the North Carolina Supreme Court has shifted since it issued its 4-3 decision in 2018 striking down changes to the state elections board.

In elections last year, Republicans established a 5-2 majority on the state Supreme Court. Within months, it reversed two major recent rulings, allowing the voter photo ID law to go into effect and allowing GOP lawmakers to draw legislative and congressional districts to their advantage.

The veto override will dissolve the five-member state elections board and replace it with a new, evenly divided eight-member one. If the board fails to select a chairperson or fails to hire an executive director, lawmakers will get to choose who takes those spots.

That provision could end current executive director Karen Brinson Bell’s tenure. She has held the position since 2019 but has come under criticism from some Republicans for easing absentee ballot rules during the coronavirus pandemic. The changes were part of a court settlement that was approved by the elections board.

The state board is responsible for determining where to establish early voting sites when a county elections board can’t unanimously agree on them. If the state board reaches an impasse on where to place them for a county, then that county will get just one early voting site. Democrats fear Republicans will vote against early voting plans for urban counties with large Democratic populations, preventing them from getting multiple early voting sites.

The bill doesn’t specify how deadlocks on other issues — such as certifying results — will be resolved. State Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger in June said such disputes could be resolved in court, according to the News & Observer.

Megan Boler Bellamy, vice president of law and policy with the Voting Rights Lab, raised concerns about how the legislation could affect people’s perceptions about elections. Deadlocked boards and partisan fights over election administration likely will hurt the public’s views about the voting system, she said.

“That’s enough damage to really have severe implications for the confidence that every single North Carolinian feels,” she said.

The other veto that lawmakers overrode will put in place a law requiring absentee ballots to be returned to election officials by the time polls close on Election Day. Previously, absentee ballots were counted as long as they were postmarked by Election Day and received by election offices up to three days after Election Day.

In 2020, the three-day grace period allowed about 12,300 additional ballots to be counted, according to the state elections board. In 2022, about 8,600 such ballots were counted. Elections in North Carolina are often close, with one state Supreme Court race being decided in 2020 by fewer than 500 votes.

Trump won North Carolina by four points in 2016 and by less than two points in 2020. Both parties are making the state a top target in the 2024 races for president and governor. Cooper is term-limited and not running for reelection.

The bill affecting absentee voting also allows partisan poll observers to move freely around polling places and listen to conversations between voters and poll workers. In addition, the bill bans private donations to fund election administration in response to the more than $400 million in donations that Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, gave to groups that helped fund election expenses in 2020.

Critics have argued it’s unfair to have private groups decide how to allocate resources for running elections because their funding could boost turnout for one side over the other. Since the 2020 election, two dozen states have banned, limited or regulated such donations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Moments after the veto was overridden, the Democratic National Committee filed a lawsuit challenging provisions of the new law, including the one ending the grace period for absentee ballots. Another group, Voto Latino, filed a separate lawsuit challenging a part of the law that affects registering to vote at the polls.

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