News: CJ Exclusives

Republican lawmakers blast N.C. elections director for ‘secret settlement’ deal with national Democrats

State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell, at a hearing in an N.C. Senate committee. (CJ photo by Maya Reagan)
State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell, at a hearing in an N.C. Senate committee. (CJ photo by Maya Reagan)

Republican lawmakers grilled State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell over her handling of the 2020 election in a testy back-and-forth hearing.

The over two-hour hearing Tuesday, March 23, before the N.C. Senate Elections Committee hinged on one central question: Did Brinson Bell, a registered Democrat, change election law after voting began last year. Brinson Bell claimed during the hearing that “rules were changed but the laws were not changed,” while GOP lawmakers fired back that her claim amounted to semantics.

“I do think that you changed election laws,” said Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth. “When you change a rule that changes a law, the law has been changed. In my mind, this was nothing short of an unprecedented effort to usurp the North Carolina General Assembly.”

The point of dispute centered on two moves that Brinson Bell made after lawyers with the State Board of Elections and Attorney General Josh Stein’s office reached a settlement agreement in a lawsuit brought by national Democrat attorney Marc Elias, who sued the state last summer over absentee by mail ballot rules.

First, Brinson Bell authorized county boards of elections to accept civilian absentee ballots up to nine days after election day, instead of the three days required by law. Second, she functionally ended the witness requirement for absentee ballots as required by state law.

Both decisions, which GOP lawmakers called a “secret settlement” at the hearing Tuesday, sidestepped the General Assembly, which has lone constitutional authority to rewrite election laws. Earlier in 2020, lawmakers passed bipartisan legislation adjusting election-laws rules in light of the pandemic.

“The actions taken by the State Board of Elections under Brinson Bell compromise the most essential fixture of our form of government: trust,” said Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, co-chair of the Senate Elections Committee.

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

The U.S. Supreme Court later declined to intervene, allowing the two provisions of the settlement to stand.

“Nothing in Brinson Bell’s testimony would reassure people who lost trust in the process after seeing what she and Marc Elias did in the 2020 election,” said Dr. Andy Jackson, director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation. “The acid test is to answer a simple question: Did the State Board of Elections follow election law? No, they did not.”

During the hearing, Brinson Bell tried to stave off criticism by saying that the “rules needed to be changed because of the pandemic. We were working to ensure the least amount of changes possible.”

She added that voters were concerned about voting in-person during the pandemic and that many distrusted the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to safely and efficiently deliver their mail-in ballot.

“My objective was to ensure that every voter, regardless of party affiliation, was able to cast their ballot,” Brinson Bell said.

In a statement released several hours after the hearing concluded, Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, co-chair of the Senate Elections Committee, criticized Brinson Bell for refusing to concede that she changed state law.

“Multiple federal judges issued blistering rebukes of the Board’s conduct under her tenure and overturned much of the settlement deal, yet Ms. Brinson Bell told us today that she only changed ‘rules,’ not ‘laws.’ There is a severe lack of trust in the partisan Board of Elections, and Ms. Brinson Bell is only making it worse.”

At one point during the wide-ranging committee hearing, Republican lawmakers questioned Brinson Bell over her Twitter account, which she deactivated one month before becoming elections director. They asked whether she would make public her tweets from the account.

“I don’t know the relevance,” Brinson Bell responded, although she did not rule about disclosing the tweets at some point.

Brinson Bell became elections director in June 2019, replacing Kim Strach, who had served in that role since 2013. The vote to hire her was split along party lines, with board’s three Democrats voting in favor and two Republicans against.