Monday, January 24, 2022

Senate readies elections and ethics overhaul

State Senate committees are poised Thursday to take up a sweeping rewrite of how North Carolina oversees compliance with campaign finance, lobbying disclosure, and ethics rules.

Senate Bill 4 was filed late Wednesday after lawmakers revealed they would hold a special session to take on a hodgepodge of unfinished ministerial matters and politically inflected legislation.

The bill would roll the state’s Board of Elections, Ethics Commission, and a division of the Secretary of State’s office that oversee’s compliance with lobbying laws into a single independent agency. Although that’s not a controversial idea by itself, the specifics rules that would govern the agency have critics raising questions about partisan intent and whether it will be able to effectively administer the laws it is charged with overseeing.

The new State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement would be run by an eight member board split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. The bill would also change how cases make their way through the appellate courts, alter appointments to the state industrial commission, and make appellate court elections partisan.

This is not the first time that lawmakers have sought such a merger. A similar merger was proposed in 2013 but never passed. At the time, lawmakers argued it would be more efficient to put all agencies that deal with public trust issues under one roof. And because the new oversight board will be evenly split, backers say it will avoid the appearance of partisan entanglements.

“This group will be a nonpartisan committee, because it will be completely balanced,” said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg.

But the move could be viewed as one of a number of partisan swipes the GOP-controlled General Assembly has aimed at Governor-elect Roy Cooper, a Democrat poised to take office in January after defeating Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Currently the State Board of Elections is a five member panel, three members appointed from the governors’ party. This bill would deny Cooper a prerogative enjoyed by other modern North Carolina governors.

Under rules set up in the bill, the board would need six votes to exercise most of their oversight powers, including issuing subpoenas or calling new elections.

“​The biggest problem with the Board of Elections rewrite proposal is the requirement to have 6 votes of an 8 member bipartisan board to take substantive action,” said Mark Ezzell, a Democratic member of the Wake County Board of Elections. “This will turn the State Board of Elections into a toothless tiger much like the Federal Elections Commission.”

The bill is complex and contains a number of other provisions. They include:

  • State Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races would be partisan under this bill. Currently, judges for appellate court run in non-partisan contests. Under those nonpartisan rules, Republican Justice Bob Edmunds lost his seat this year to Judge Mike Morgan, a Democrat.
  • The current five-member board of elections would be dismissed and replaced with the sitting members of the state ethics commission. They would remain in place until this summer when a new board would be appointed. The state board was forced to handle a number of unforeseen events sparked by federal court rulings. During the year, it ignored urging from Republican Party officials to limit early voting hours and refused to countenance a number of voting fraud cases brought by the state GOP.
  • Of the eight member board, half would be appointed by the governor. The remainder would be appointed by the legislative leadership.
  • The new board would alternate the chairmanship between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans would chair the board during even-numbered election years, while Democrats would have that job in off years.
  • Local boards of election, which are currently three member panels, would become four-member boards evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. As with the state board, local boards would alternate the chairmanship. Due to how the chairs alternate, Republicans would head the boards of the state’s largest counties such as Wake and Mecklenburg in even-numbered years, which partisan elections take place.
  • The bill restricts the newly created state board from playing any role in drawing new districts. At one point this year, a federal judge contemplated requiring the State Board of Elections to draw new maps for Wake County.
  • The ability to appeal certain cases to the state Supreme Court would be limited under the bill. Instead, some cases would have to be first heard en banc by the full 15 justices of the Court of Appeals before heading to the Supreme Court. This would, in effect, slow the progress of a case to the state’s highest court.
  • The bill effectively extends the term of Leo Daughtridge, McCrory’s former Secretary of Administration, on the Industrial Commission by six years. It would also allow the McCrory to appoint the chairman of the commission who will serve over the next four years.

A special thank you to our friends at WRAL for helping out with this post.

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