The State Board of Elections ousted Executive Director Kim Strach Monday, May 13, on a party line vote, naming Karen Brinson Bell of Charleston, South Carolina, to replace Strach effective June 1.

Strach served six of her 19 years with the state board as executive director, having built a reputation as an intrepid investigator on some of North Carolina’s highest profile election corruption cases. On her watch, elections board investigations led to criminal referrals and later convictions of former Gov. Mike Easley, state Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, state House Speaker Jim Black, and state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, among others.

Backlash and fallout were swift.

“Within an hour of the board’s outrageous decision, the agency’s Chief General Counsel Josh Lawson resigned,” Republican state board member Ken Raymond told Carolina Journal in a written statement.

Raymond and fellow Republican David Black opposed the move. Black blamed outside political pressure for canning Strach, who was respected statewide by members of both political parties and by staff at the 70-employee agency.

Board Chairman Bob Cordle and fellow Democrats Stella Anderson and Jeff Carmon approved Bell’s hiring.

Cordle praised Strach as a terrific investigator who led the agency through difficult periods of litigation between Gov. Roy Cooper and the General Assembly that resulted temporarily in a vacant board and changing rules. But he said some county elections boards don’t think they are treated fairly by the state board, and it was time for a change heading into a complicated 2020 election season.

Raymond and Carmon clashed on the reason for pushing Strach out.

Raymond said there was no compelling reason, and removing her sends a message the board doesn’t value fairness and impartiality in the top management position.

Carmon objected, saying personnel matters should not be discussed in public. Raymond countered that he was unaware of any closed state board meeting in which Strach’s performance was in dispute. Cordle cut them off to end that line of debate.

In his post-meeting statement Raymond said reasons given for Strach’s ouster “are grossly insufficient. Therefore, we can only conclude that the true reason for their decision is extreme Democrat partisanship.”

Legislative Republicans quickly bashed Strach’s removal.

“With Cooper’s handpicked Democrats controlling the Board and Cooper’s handpicked Executive Director controlling the office, the Board of Elections has a crisis of legitimacy,” Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said in a news release. He chairs the Senate Committee on Redistricting and Elections.

“The Board will be used as a weapon against the Governor’s political adversaries and a shield for the Governor’s loyal Democrats,” Hise said.

“It’s clear she was fired and replaced with a Democratic political activist who lives in South Carolina to exert partisan control over our state’s elections systems,” Reps. Holly Grange, R-New Hanover, and Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, said in a joint statement. The co-chairmen of the House Elections Committee expressed disappointment with Cooper for replacing her in the midst of special elections for the 3rd and 9th congressional districts.    

Strach is married to Phil Strach, a lawyer who has represented Republican legislative leaders in a series of election redistricting lawsuits. She and the state board were named as defendants in litigation.

State Democratic Party Executive Director Wayne Goodwin highlighted the relationship in a statement, calling Strach former Gov. Pat “McCrory’s hand-picked elections director.”

In response, N.C. GOP Communications Director Jeff Hauser said, “the North Carolina Democrat Party chose to make a misogynistic statement suggesting Kim Strach is simply a puppet of her husband instead of the capable public servant that she is.”

Most recently, Strach won acclaim and national attention for her handling of the 2018 9th District election involving absentee ballot fraud and other irregularities. (See CJ coverage here.) She is not a lawyer, but in an unusual move the state board empowered her as the point person to question witnesses in a February evidentiary hearing.

The Rev. Mark Harris, a Republican, unofficially defeated Democratic challenger Dan McCready, but called for a new election when it became obvious sufficient evidence was presented to show the race was tainted.

Strach did not participate in Monday’s teleconference because she was in Bladen County helping local elections officials prepare for Tuesday’s 9th District Republican primary. Bladen County was the epicenter of the 2018 election woes.

Cordle said in opening remarks Brinson Bell is the right person to prepare the agency for the 2020 election. Voters will choose the president, a U.S. senator, governor, the entire congressional delegation, all Council of State members and state lawmakers, and a host of other officials.

Voter ID will be used for the first time in a general election, new voting equipment might be in place in some counties, and there will be many new elections officials because county boards were expanded from three members to five. More than 2,700 precincts must be manned on election day, and at least 13,500 people must be recruited and trained before then to ensure consistent election protocols, Cordle said.

“On top of all this the FBI and Homeland Security have warned us of the cybersecurity concerns with Russia and other state actors attempting to interfere in our elections,” Cordle said. The board must ensure voters have trust in the process, believe elections are fair, and all votes are properly counted.

Cordle said Brinson Bell has the required skills and knowledge to meet all those challenges.

“Our top priorities will be promoting voter confidence in elections and assisting the 100 county boards, the boots on the ground in every election,” Brinson Bell said in a prepared statement. “I plan to roll up my sleeves and work with State Board staff to prepare for the important elections ahead.”

Most recently, Brinson Bell was deputy director of the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center. It advocates election reform in which voters rank candidates in order of preference.

From March 2011 to March 2015 she was director for the Transylvania County Board of Elections. Earlier she worked for five years as a district elections technician for the state board, supporting 12 county boards in western North Carolina in election matters.