Ignoring 62% of Voters, North Carolina Republicans Overhaul Elections Board With Senate Bill 749

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday, Sept. 22, North Carolina Republicans sent Senate Bill 749 to Gov. Roy Cooper (D), who recently vowed to veto the bill. The final vote was 26-17, along party lines, and came after a midnight House session that amended the date the legislation would go into effect. The amendment, critically, pushes the date up from July 1, 2024 to January 1, 2024, in time for primaries.

Despite the governor’s promised veto, the state’s Republican legislators recently gained a veto-proof supermajority that will override any veto from Cooper. The bill passed today would dramatically restructure the state and county boards of elections, giving lawmakers more power in the nominating process. 

S.B. 749 would remove the governor’s power to appoint election board members to the state board, granting it to the North Carolina Legislature instead. Additionally, the state boards would have an even number of Democrats and Republicans, departing from the current system that allows the party that holds the governor’s office (currently Democrats) to appoint a majority of state board members. Despite Democratic efforts to amend S.B. 749 accordingly, the bill provides no mechanism for tie-breaking, which is likely to be necessary. 

Similarly, the bill would also change the composition of the state’s 100 county election boards to be four-member bipartisan boards appointed by lawmakers with stalemates in decision-making likely. While political parties would still be able to nominate members to county election boards when vacancies occur, the Legislature would no longer be required to follow their suggestions as is currently stipulated. 

The bill’s opponents are concerned that the even partisan split will result in a deadlock over counties’ early voting plans, which, in turn, will result in dramatic cuts to early voting locations and hours as the state’s statute stipulates a reversion to just one early voting site in the county if a consensus cannot be reached. Just ahead of today’s final vote in the state House, Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) proposed three separate amendments designed to avoid or mitigate the effects of a deadlock. They failed along party lines.

Cooper has clearly outlined the consequences of the deceptive administrative reshuffling: “This would severely cripple early voting. In 2016, 2.9 million North Carolinians used early voting, with just 1.5 million people voting on Election Day. Wake County has more than 800,000 registered voters. Mecklenburg County has over 770,000. Imagine the difficulty of running an orderly, efficient early vote period with just one site.”

These concerns are further corroborated by many of the state’s elections officials, who sent a bipartisan letter to lawmakers in July, urging lawmakers to consider the negative consequences the changes would have on voters. 

This is not the first time that the North Carolina Republican Party has attempted to restructure the state board of elections. 

First, following Cooper’s election in November 2016, but prior to his term’s commencement, the Republican-led Legislature enacted two bills, Senate Bill 4 and House Bill 17, that abolished the existing Board and Ethics Commission and created a new combined Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement with its members appointed by legislators, rather than the governor. Former Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed the legislation into law the same day. 

In January 2018, after Cooper sued Republican legislators, the North Carolina Supreme Court found the bills violated the state constitution’s separation-of-powers provisions as they “imping[ed] upon the Governor’s ability to faithfully execute the laws.” 

After the power-grabbing legislation failed, conservative lawmakers tried again to restructure the election boards, this time via a constitutional amendment. Placed on the ballot along party lines by Republicans, the amendment specifically sought to overturn that state Supreme Court decision from the year prior, as outlined in the ballot summary. However, voters resoundingly rejected the amendment by 62%. Ahead of the election, all living former governors of the state (three Democrats and two Republicans) came together publicly and urged North Carolinians to vote against the amendment with former Gov. Jim Martin (R) asserting, “This is not about partisan politics. It’s about power politics, and it must be stopped.”

While this type of legislation has been previously struck down as unconstitutional, S.B. 749 comes on the heels of a highly unprecedented move by the North Carolina Supreme Court. 

Armed with a new conservative majority, the state’s Supreme Court reversed two of its rulings from last year, including a decision that restricted photo ID requirements for voting. One of the rulings, which now gives the North Carolina Legislature the power to gerrymander without oversight from state courts, was vehemently opposed by Justice Anita Earls (D).

In her searing 71-page dissent, Earls argued, “In a single blow, the majority strips millions of voters of this state of their fundamental, constitutional rights and delivers on the threat that ‘our decisions are fleeting, and our precedent is only as enduring as the terms of the justices who sit on the bench.” Experts have echoed these concerns. Earls is now facing alleged retribution from the court over her remarks about its lack of diversity.

So, while S.B. 749 is titled the “No Partisan Advantage in Elections” bill, there is little behavior from North Carolina Republicans that suggests they will heed their own description. 

Read S.B. 749 here.

Track the status of S.B. 749 here.