News: Quick Takes

Lawmakers to question elections board director on ‘collusive’ settlement 

Karen Brinson Bell, left, attends her first meeting as executive director of the State Board of Elections in June 2019. (CJ file photo)
Karen Brinson Bell, left, attends her first meeting as executive director of the State Board of Elections in June 2019. (CJ file photo)

The N.C. Senate is summoning the director of the State Board of Elections to answer questions about a controversial settlement she negotiated that upended voting rules just weeks before November’s election.

Karen Brinson Bell is expected to appear before the Senate Elections Committee 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 23.

The questioning stems from a lawsuit brought by national Democrat attorney Marc Elias, who sued the state last summer over absentee by mail ballot rules.

The General Assembly had recently passed a law that tweaked procedures for the 2020 election as the state dealt with the COVID pandemic, an effort to make absentee by mail voting easier while safeguarding against abuses and fraud. This included reducing the witness requirement on an absentee ballot from two signatures to one and creating a way to request an absentee ballot online. The bill passed with overwhelming majorities, 

Elias sought to undo the witness requirement and extend the deadline for receiving absentee ballots until more than a week after Election Day.

At some point in late summer, Elias, Attorney General Josh Stein, Brinson Bell and the Democrat-controlled Board of Elections negotiated a settlement to the lawsuit that included a six-day extension on the deadline for receiving absentee ballots. It also essentially eliminated the witness requirement on absentee ballots by allowing voters who did not get a witness to sign their ballot to simply fill out an affidavit and have their vote count.

This settlement — which would have changed absentee by mail voting rules — was entered after absentee by mail voting had already begun.

General Assembly leaders immediately called the settlement “collusive” and challenged it in court.

Elias has represented Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and other national Democratic figures. Cooper also appoints the members of the Board of Elections. Stein is a Democrat, as well. 

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger described it as a “full-frontal assault on election integrity laws.” 

The judicial system agreed. In early October, federal Judge James Dever temporarily blocked the settlement from going into effect, saying the State Board of Elections ignored the law and “upset the electoral status quo in the middle of an election.”

Two week later, federal Judge William Osteen negated the settlement’s provision eliminating the witness requirement, calling the settlement a “a flagrant misuse” of the legal system.

Brinson Bell was the chief negotiator of the settlement, according to elections board members.

Andrew Dunn is a freelance writer for Carolina Journal.