A bill entitled, “Bipartisan State Board Changes” – House Bill 1029 – (Reps. Torbett, R-Gaston and Iler, R-Brunswick), which sailed to passage in the General Assembly yesterday, ends a two-year struggle between the General Assembly and Gov. Roy Cooper over partisan control of the State Board of Elections. The bill also covers several other areas, including allowing for a new primary in a disputed congressional race and concerns over absentee ballot fraud.
The bill largely returns the state elections and lobbying management structure to that of 2016, with the State Board of Elections handling elections and campaign finance issues, the State Ethics Commission dealing with ethics compliance and enforcement, and the Secretary of State’s office tasked with registering and regulating lobbyists.
After the 2016 elections, those functions had been combined into an eight-member Bipartisan State Board of Ethics and Elections Enforcement in 2017. However, the state Supreme Court sided with Cooper’s argument that the merger of the boards interfered with his constitutional power to enforce elections laws. The General Assembly responded by putting the question to voters in the form of an amendment to the North Carolina Constitution on the November 2018 ballot. Voters rejected the proposed amendment by a margin of 62-38 percent. As with redistricting, elections enforcement is inherently political. The changes included in HB 1029 are an acknowledgment of that and the referendum results.
Addressing a more recent concern, the bill stipulates that a new primary would be required if the Board of Elections orders a new congressional general election. Broadly, the change acknowledges that a new election is a new political event, information about which would likely affect whom primary voters would chose to represent their party in the general election. More specifically, a new election is also an acknowledgement that extensive ballot harvesting took place in the 9th Congressional District Republican primary as well as in the general election. HB 1029 specifies that the implementation of the voter ID law will not apply to any new election ordered for a 2018 contest, giving local election officials sufficient time to implement the law.
The bill also addresses problems associated with absentee voting. The bill attempts to fill a gap in the current law by requiring certification that the person submitting an absentee ballot is, in fact, the person to whom it was issued. Verification can be accomplished by having the two adults currently required to witness the marking of the absentee ballot also sign certification, causing no additional burden to the voter. Alternatively, the voter can have the ballot application notarized if one of the witnesses cannot confirm the identity of the voter.
HB 1029 also requires the State Board of Elections to investigate potential absentee ballot fraud over the past five election cycles. In addition to providing data on mail-in absentee ballots, the board must specifically report on “instances of potential mail-in ballot harvesting,” a pernicious practice in which political operatives take ballots from voters rather than allowing voters to directly submit their own ballots as required by law. Alleged ballot harvesting has been going on in Bladen County since at least 2016 and has allegedly been practiced in other counties as well.
The bill also includes provisions that lessen the likelihood that the General Assembly would have to go into special session to address legal challenges to legislative districts and reforms, potentially saving taxpayer money.
HB 1029 now goes to Cooper for his signature. While a spokesman for the governor says he is “reviewing this legislation carefully”, Cooper is unlikely to veto the bill.