The North Carolina State Board of Election (SBE) is really two different organizations. To the public it is the appointed State Board of Elections consisting of political appointees of the governor representing the two major parties in North Carolina. More importantly, it is the bureaucratic staff that dominates both the election machinery and increasingly the way campaigns are conducted in North Carolina.
It is important to know that the North Carolina State Board of Elections is said to be one of the most authoritative boards of its kind in the country. It is an independent state agency and does not come under the jurisdiction of any other department headed by an elected official.
In 1986 the state elections staff consisted of five people and a moderate budget. In 2012 SBE staff is approaching 60 employees and pay and benefits exceed $3.5 million. While a poster child for how state government has grown over the last several decades, what is more worrisome is how the staff operates when making decisions that affect the very foundation of our democratic system of representative government.
Civitas has used the public records law to request information to piece together how decisions were made and actions taken by the staff of the SBE. What we found was a decision process that was heavily influenced, and in some cases directed, by one lobbyist for special interest groups. These actions even included the drafting of materials paid for by taxpayers and the planning of legislative lobbying and media campaigns. In addition, critical decisions that affected elections were kept out of public view and were not taken to the SBE for approval.
Getting the information was not easy. The SBE staff attempted to stonewall, delay and illegally charge Civitas for information that the law clearly says is public. Despite our persistence we believe that there are records that were not provided despite the law’s clear readings. But the records that were provided were enough to paint a disturbing picture of a supposedly professional staff that acted in anything but a professional way.
The first conclusive indication that there was trouble in the SBE staff was the response to a public records request made concerning communications involving lobbyist Bob Hall of the liberal advocacy group DemocracyNC.
The initial request was made of seven questions or requests for copies of emails. The request was made by email to Don Wright, the SBE’s General Counsel, on December 5, 2011. The first response from Mr. Wright was received on December 20, 2011. His response included an estimate of charges that would total approximately $4,800. The sticking point was the retrieval of emails. The estimate included a rate of $60 an hour for 60-80 hours of work. After some discussion, the request for emails was revised and we asked only for emails to and from Bob Hall or Democracy NC. During the month of January the SBE moved its offices and Mr. Wright underwent surgery, but on January 25 Mr. Wright forwarded the answers to all the initial questions except for the request of emails concerning Bob Hall. On March 13 we were informed that they had run the preliminary search and had retrieved 3,956 emails and it would cost approximately $1,500.
After an attempt to pare the request down and more back and forth about the estimated costs, we sought advice from a State House member. On June 5, Rep. David Lewis, Chairman of the House Elections Committee, forwarded an email with his opinion on our public records request to the SBE.
Rep. Lewis’ email resulted in the SBE withdrawing their demand for money, but still, we didn’t receive the emails until the second week of August 2012. At that time we received over 5,000 emails to and from Bob Hall or Democracy NC with attachments. There were duplicate emails but well over half of them were unique.
The attached emails show a SBE staff more interested in hiding and foot-dragging than in disclosure in accordance with the law.
In our second story in the series we will see why they felt compelled to try and resist disclosing these communications. It sets the stage for looking at a SBE staff interested in fighting a political fight rather than carrying out implementation of the law in a non-partisan, efficient manner.