News: CJ Exclusives

State elections board loses request to ease rules for 2020 election

The N.C. Rules Review Commission unanimously voted to reject a State Board of Elections’ request for emergency powers on Thursday, May 21. Commissioners said the requested temporary rule changes were ambiguous, unnecessary, and outside of the board’s statutory authority. 

The board said it needed more flexibility to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The changes would have allowed the board to delay hearings for candidate challenges and election protest appeals, change some election dates, and move the deadline for voter registration. The powers would also allow the board to shift deadlines to complete and report the sorting for ballots by precinct, as well as deadlines to accept absentee by-mail ballots. The text specifically banned the board from changing the redistricting process. 

The board argued the coronavirus could pose health and logistical problems during November’s statewide election season. It says it needs to prepare absentee ballots by Sept. 4, despite concerns over supply chain issues and protective gear. 

Commissioners didn’t make it past roll call when public objections began. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest sent a news release calling the State Board of Elections a “Democrat-controlled [board looking for] unprecedented power to alter election rules to their benefit.” 

“These measures would let the Board of Elections accept ballots days after the election, delay vote counting, suspend due process, and ignore legitimate challenges,” Forest said. “The State Board of Elections, appointed by Gov. [Roy] Cooper, is simply trying to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine the integrity of our elections.”

The rule changes would protect public health, said Katelyn Love, general counsel for the elections board. The board is worried about the safety of voters and poll workers not only during the November election period but also as the June 23 primary approaches. Early voting for it will open within weeks.

“This could make it extremely hazardous for voters and election officials,” Love said. It could create a significant risk to the lives of those in the voting place.”

But others were skeptical. 

“The agency appears to be subverting the legislative process,” said Jay DeLancy, co-founder of the Voter Integrity Project of N.C. “[This] is practically a carbon copy of their legislative agenda.”

Some commissioners agreed with DeLancy. 

“There is a gross misunderstanding of what the RRC purview is … or it is a devious stunt by the Board of Elections,” said Commissioner Tommy Tucker. “I’m concerned this is an end run around the public, the General Assembly, and the courts.”

Love denied that the changes would allow votes to be cast after election day. She said ballots still would have to be postmarked by election day, and that the changes simply shielded elections from Postal Service delays. 

The state Board of Elections has endorsed reducing or eliminating the requirement for two witnesses to sign a ballot, paying postage for absentee ballots, and extending the deadline for counting mail-in ballots after election day. A recent lawsuit also seeks to loosen restrictions on the state’s mail-in ballot system. 

Republican lawmakers bashed the requested rule change as a “back-door attempt to rewrite election laws” in a swing state. 

“Lawmakers are focused on working on bipartisan legislation that will ensure that all voters have safe access to the ballot while protecting the integrity of the election,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, in a news release. “Empowering one person who was appointed by a partisan board controlled by Gov. Cooper to rewrite our state’s elections laws months before a presidential election is improper.”

The elections board can revise and resubmit the requested rule change. The Rules Review Commission will then have five days to approve or reject the new rule, which would take place during an emergency meeting of at least three commissioners. 

It is rare to see all commissioners agree on more than one or two reasons to object to a proposed rule, said Jeanette Doran, first vice chair of the commission

“It’s unusual to have all commissioners object on the same basis,” Doran said. “To have all of the commissioners object on three distinct bases speaks volumes.”