News: CJ Exclusives

Bill returns bipartisan elections/ethics agency to separate boards

State elections board members Stella Anderson, left, and Valerie Johnson discuss business at the board's Oct. 17 meeting. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
State elections board members Stella Anderson, left, and Valerie Johnson discuss business at the board's Oct. 17 meeting. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

After several court battles and a failed constitutional amendment, the Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement may once again become separate boards.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett on Monday, Dec. 3, introduced House Bill 1117, which would reconfigure and split the Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

The Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has been the focus of several constitutional challenges since the Republican-led General Assembly tried to restructure the makeup of the elections board during a 2016 special legislative session.

“By combining the ethics enforcement and election oversight, it was almost giving too much for one committee to do,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College. “It seems like there was more focus on the election oversight than the ethics enforcement.”

Courts have rebuffed attempts to remove or dilute the governor’s sole appointment power to the elections board. Superior Court decisions from October ruled the board unconstitutional. But because midterm election voting had already started, the court kept the board in place until Dec. 3.

A proposed state constitutional amendment to preserve changes to the elections and ethics board failed in November. The court has decided to allow the bipartisan board to stay in place until Dec. 12 so an election investigation into allegations of absentee ballot irregularities in the 9th Congressional District can move forward.

Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said it looks as if lawmakers are throwing in the towel in their quest for a bipartisan board of elections and ethics.

“If you’re going back to what the [2016] status quo was, that seems as uncontroversial of a position as you possibly can get,” Taylor said.

One agency would be a five-member board overseeing the administration of elections. As with the original elections board, the governor would have control over appointments. Three of the five members would come from the governor’s party; state leaders in the other major party would nominate candidates for the two remaining spots.

County election boards would return to three members instead of four, with no more than two members coming from the same party. In odd-numbered years, the chair would be a member of the political party with the highest number of registered party affiliates, currently the Democratic Party. During even-numbered years, the chair would be a member of the political party with the second-highest number of registered party affiliates, now the Republican Party.

The second agency would be an eight-member bipartisan board addressing ethics, campaign finance, and lobbying. Half the members would be appointed by the governor; the other half by state lawmakers.

“[H.B. 1117] stands a better chance of getting bipartisan support than the previous iteration of a bill to combine the ethics enforcement and election oversight,” McLennan said.

McLennan said these changes make clearer the terms of responsibilities for each board and may remove some partisanship from the agencies.

The current edition of the bill includes a variety of other provisions, such as abolishing six state boards tied up in court over separation-of-powers concerns. If the bill passes, the following would be dissolved: the State Building Commission, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund Board of Trustees, the state Parks and Recreation Authority, the Private Protective Services Board, the Rural Infrastructure Authority, and the Child Care Commission.

H.B. 1117 would also repeal a law requiring state political investigations to be handled by the Wake County District Attorney’s office. Instead, the prosecutorial district responsible for the investigation would depend on where a candidates lives.

The bill also would repeal the Constitutional Amendment Publication Commission. The three-member commission was in charge of writing ballot descriptions of proposed constitutional amendments for voter information materials. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Attorney General Josh Stein, the two Democrats on the commission, earned the ire of Republican lawmakers when Marshall and Stein claimed lawmakers used deceptive language  in some of the 2018 constitutional amendments.

“That part is a sort of way of rebuking the Constitutional Amendment Publication Commission,” Taylor said.

Taylor said this provision may be a way for Republican lawmakers to gain something in exchange for returning to the status quo. Whether Democratic lawmakers are on board remains unclear.

“I think at least the main provisions of it could get bipartisan support and may be able to get through pretty quickly,” McLennan said. “It’s just the other things like the commissions and relocating the investigations that may be the sticking points.”