Stunning Election Reform Bill Advances (Part 1 of 4)

[North Carolina’s veto-proof Republican State Senate recently fast tracked a bill called “No Partisan Advantage in Elections (SB 749)” and sent it over to the veto-proof Republican House. On it’s surface, the bill sounds like an idea everybody could support. . . which is why we’re going to peek under the hood and see what’s inside in a 4-part series. In honor of the great Clint Eastwood, we present this series on “the good, the bad, and the ugly” aspects of SB 749 and add a 4th segment on the possibilities of meaningful reforms to prevent NC from turning into the next Jew Jersey or California. Today’s post deals with some of the positive changes that could result from SB749.]

July 27, 2023 — The idea of “no partisan advantage in elections” just sounds dandy at first blush. While such a lofty goal is worth a try, it needs serious deliberation in the House before it gets enacted.

The Good: Divided Government Powers

One of the best features of the bill will explicitly make it illegal for election administrators to “deliver absentee ballots to an eligible voter who did not submit a valid written request form.” It also would be illegal for election administrators to order an election “to be conducted using all mail-in absentee ballots” and further stipulated that the Board may not delegate certain authorities to the Executive Director.

You can watch the trailer to this 1966 Cling Eastwood film by clicking image.

The intent here seems to involve preventing a reply of 2020’s last-minute changes to NC’s election law, under the guise of Governor Cooper’s emergency decrees, so this looks promising.

Another sweet provision of this bill changes appointment power of County Election Directors from the Board of Elections, over to the County Commissioners. This is good for a number of reasons.

First, for more than a decade, we’ve watched as Republican County Board of Elections (CBE) members violate the Bobby Knight rule and they simply quit “dancing with who brung them” to the ball. Instead of representing the party’s interest to the Board, they over identify with their County Director of Elections and the staff. This classic case of Stockholm Syndrome might be minimized if they lost the power to hire and fire the Director. So, this seems worth a try.

Another aspect of this law we love involves the Senate’s poorly devised plan to divide electoral administration powers evenly between both parties. This “nonpartisan” approach to election administration seems to be a major purpose of this bill. Since no system is immune from corruption, we’ll take an agnostic position and not oppose it. New York is probably the biggest state with “nonpartisan” election boards. Also, the Federal Government requires  “nonpartisan” leadership in both the Federal Elections Commission and the Electoral Assistance Commission.

While this overall reform is probably worthwhile, we should never fool ourselves. First, anybody who has ever supervised federal employees knows the staff members will always have their own political motives. So, simply calling it “nonpartisan” will not overcome that human bias. Second, third parties will never be treated as equals under a system controlled by the two major parties, so truth in advertising would call it “bipartisan.”

Probably the most controversial feature of this bill involves it shifting power away from the Governor and dividing that power. Mostly, the Secretary of State will control future elections under this bill. Currently, the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) is a powerful state agency completely controlled by the Governor. Lots of other states assign those powers to their Secretary of State.

Divided power is a key reason America survived as long as it has. We love divided power! But as codified in the Senate, SB 749 barely scratches the surface of that topic. It true that the Legislature gives themselves all of the Governor’s authority to appoint members to the county and state election boards, but there are a few problems they either overlooked or ignored, which we’ll unpack in Part 2.