News: CJ Exclusives

New 9th District primary removed from elections/ethics board makeover

House Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, at an August news conference. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
House Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, at an August news conference. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

Republican lawmakers unveiled a new bill at a Tuesday, Dec. 11 news conference which would return the Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement to two separate boards after years of court battles over the merger. And then they made a major change while the bill was in committee.

Sponsors initially included a controversial provision mandating a new primary if an investigation of alleged absentee ballot irregularities in the 9th Congressional District warranted a new general election. But they removed that provision, as Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, chairman of the House Elections Committee, said that portion of the bill didn’t have the backing of a majority of conferees.

Under current state law, a special congressional election ordered by the state elections board must be a rematch involving the candidates who ran earlier. Republican Mark Harris, who won in November by 905 votes — but whose campaign is the subject of a state board investigation — would appear on the ballot for a new election, along with Democrat Dan McCready and Libertarian Jeff Scott.

If a new primary were mandated, Harris could have been replaced by another Republican. Instead, Harris, McCready, and Scott would face voters again if a special election is ordered.

GOP lawmakers took House Bill 1029, once a transportation bill, and inserted the election board fix as a conference report. As the House Rules Committee discussed the measure, the committee took a long break. When members returned, they were presented a new version of the bill removing the possible 9th District primary.

Setting aside the 9th District dispute, under H.B. 1029, the elections and ethics board would be separated and appointment power returned to the governor. This was a long-standing arrangement, changed by a December 2016 lame-duck session of the General Assembly which stripped those powers from then-Gov.-elect Roy Cooper. Cooper sued, arguing the changes violated his constitutional appointment powers.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Lewis and Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, said the conference report emerged from negotiations between the legislature and Cooper’s office. While Lewis said they didn’t have the explicit support of the governor, the bill features provisions that should make him happy.

A Superior Court decision from October ruled the combined elections and ethics 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 the combined board failed in November. The court later decided to allow the current board to stay in place until Dec. 12 so the 9th District investigation could continue uninterrupted.

The court once again extended the deadline to Dec. 28 to further accommodate the investigation and avoid confusion. This also gives lawmakers more time to implement a legislative fix to the board’s makeup.

The new law would take effect Jan. 31 or when the investigation into the 9th District ended. Lewis said the intent of this legislation isn’t to impede or impair the investigation.

The bill makes several other elections-related changes:

  • Voter ID legislation would take effect Sept. 1, 2019.
  • The two witnesses who sign absentee ballots must attest to the identity of the absentee voter.
  • Lobbying oversight would return to the Secretary of State’s office.
  • Board members couldn’t make political contributions, solicit contributions, or make public political statements.
  • Board members couldn’t be appointed officials, political candidates, campaign advisers, or state employees.
  • The General Assembly would have more time to comply with court-ordered redistricting; rather than calling a special session typically allowing 14 days to draw new maps, lawmakers could handle redistricting in a regular session if one is scheduled within 45 days of the court order.
  • County election boards would grow from four members to five, with the governor choosing the chair. Under the law in effect in 2016, local elections boards had only three members with a 2-1 partisan split.

Unlike another earlier proposal to revamp the elections board, H.B. 1029 wouldn’t dissolve the Constitutional Amendment Commission. The bill also doesn’t include a provision abolishing six state boards tied up in court over separation-of-powers concerns.

The House Rules Committee ultimately passed the bill by voice vote. Democratic lawmakers disagreed with the conference report, arguing that some of the language was too vague or was unclear.

The Senate Rules Committee is scheduled to take up the bill at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

Then it would move to the House and Senate for floor votes. Because the bill is a conference report, it can’t be amended.