- The State Board of Elections is seeking up to $4.5 million from the General Assembly in order to match $22.5 million in federal grants.
- The General Assembly should exercise oversight of the elections board, both in how it spends the grant money and in how the board’s executive director plans to exercise emergency powers during the 2020 general election.
Here is a question: What was the first thing Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the NC State Board of Elections (SBE), asked for in her April 29 memo to the General Assembly?
Here is another question: What was the second thing Brinson Bell asked for in her April 29 memo to the General Assembly?
Even more money.
Board of Election’s wants matching funds
At the top of Brinson Bell’s wish list was federal funding for election management. There are two pots of federal money that the SBE is trying to get, both of which require state matching funds.
The first pot of federal money is through the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. President Donald Trump signed an appropriation act last December that included hundreds of millions of dollars to “improve the administration of elections for Federal office, including to enhance technology and make election security improvements.” The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) states that the North Carolina government will have to appropriate $2,324,962 in matching funds in order for the SBE to get $11,624,810 in federal funds.
The second pot of federal money is from the recently passed CARES Act. North Carolina will have to provide $2,179,459 in matching funds in order to secure $10,897,295 in federal funds. However, not all of the state matching funds will have to come from a specific appropriation from the General Assembly; the EAC provides several ways that states can also “meet the matching requirements with allowable costs within the agency’s existing budget.” That means part of the matching funds can come from state and local money already budgeted for elections.
The General Assembly should exercise oversight of the SBE’s spending
There is no question that the SBE and county boards of elections will face increased expenses, perhaps greatly increased expenses, to conduct the general election this November. Securing federal funding by providing state matching funds makes sense.
However, the General Assembly should also exercise its normal oversight function over how the SBE conducts the election. First, they should demand a more detailed budget than Brinson Bell provided in her April 29 memo to the General Assembly. Given how fluid the situation is, it is probably too much to expect a finely tuned accounting of expected expenses right now, but the SBE should at least commit to providing more details over the next several weeks than the seven bullet points in the memo.
The SBE should also work up an estimate of how much of the CARES Act matching funds can come from already budgeted funds rather than a new granting of money from the General Assembly. With the increased expenses and decreased revenues, the state government will be facing this year, it will need to find savings anywhere it can.
The General Assembly should exercise oversight of the SBE executive director’s emergency powers
The General Assembly should also exercise its normal oversight function over how Brinson Bell uses her newly expanded emergency powers.
On March 20, the SBE changed the emergency powers the executive director already had in “determining whether the ‘normal schedule,’ for the election has been disrupted” to include emergencies declared due to disease epidemic. The first thing Brinson Bell did with her new power was to move the 11th Congressional District second primary from May 12 to June 23.
The executive director can also use emergency powers to alter voting hours, as was done in counties affected by Hurricane Dorian during the 3rd Congressional District special election in 2019.
Under North Carolina law, counties must normally operate all early “one-stop” voting locations from on the same days and for the same hours (except for the county board of elections office). That assures that election officials cannot set voting hours to give some voters more opportunity to vote than others. Brinson Bell made clear in her March 26 memo (page 5) to the General Assembly that she would like to allow county boards to set differing hours for early voting sites. The General Assembly should, and likely will, reject that request.
We do not know if Gov. Roy Cooper will maintain the coronavirus emergency declaration through the fall even as the state slowly reopens, so it is possible that Brinson Bell may be tempted to use her powers to get by fiat what she could not get by persuasion.
Part of the regulations providing emergency powers to the SBE executive director note that she must consider (page 2) “sufficiency of time remaining for the General Assembly and the Governor to adopt emergency legislation addressing the disruption.” If she asked for the change in March based on the coronavirus emergency declaration, that should certainly be considered sufficient time under the law and prevent Bell from acting unilaterally to alter early voting hours due to the coronavirus. The General Assembly should make the SBE publicly commit to that position.
As the General Assembly works to make sure North Carolina can conduct a free and fair election this fall, members should articulate the limits of the SBE executive director’s emergency powers.
What you can do: You can help North Carolina’s elections go smoothly by volunteering to be an election official or working to help people vote absentee. The SBE has links to volunteer opportunities with your local county board of elections. You can also submit a public comment to the NC House Select Committee on COVID-19 to let them know you support keeping early voting hours equal.