Board Member Makes History With Dissenting 'No' Vote In North Carolina's Election Certification
Something historic happened when the North Carolina State Board of Elections certified the state’s election results in late November: Board member Tommy Tucker voted against certification. It was the first time in recent history a member has dissented from a unanimous vote.
Is it the start of injecting politics into what’s supposed to be a bipartisan, administrative task?
When he called into the virtual State Board of Elections meeting that morning, Tucker hadn’t talked to anyone about his vote to certify the election. Elections staff gave a presentation about data from Election Day. The chair called the roll for the vote. When Tucker heard his name, he paused, and then said, “No.”
Tucker said his "no" vote wasn’t to dispute who won the election. It was a vote of principle.
"I take seriously the U.S. Constitution, and following that to the letter," Tucker said. "Being a literalist of the Constitution is what I have tried to do. Therefore, that’s where the no vote originated from."
The four other members voted "yes."
Tucker asked for time that morning to explain his vote. He said a legal settlement agreed to by the state board made changes to the election that only the General Assembly should have put in place. Those changes included how election workers could cure absentee ballots with errors, and how long election boards could receive mailed absentee ballots after Election Day.
The Board can’t change how it runs its elections, Tucker said; only the General Assembly can OK that. He pointed to a clause in the U.S. Constitution that says only state legislatures can decide how their elections will be run.
"When you can plainly read the Constitution, and I don’t think you need to be a lawyer or anyone in government for very long to figure out that the state legislature is the one that needs to be making the laws, not other entities," Tucker said.
Tucker joined the State Board of Elections in October after a partisan fallout over that same legal settlement. It prompted two Republican board members to resign, leading Gov. Roy Cooper to appoint Tucker as one of the replacements.
Tucker was previously a Union County Commissioner and city councilman. He then served as a state senator for eight years, starting when Republicans took the chamber in 2011. Tucker decided not to run again in 2018.
The General Assembly appointed him to the state’s Rules Review Commission. It’s a board that oversees rules adopted by state agencies in North Carolina, including the State Board of Elections. That’s where Tucker learned how the elections board worked.
He said he’s taken principled stands — not necessarily popular ones — in his public service.
"I firmly believe that my willingness to serve just comes from the fact that I love this state, love the people of this state, and want to do the right thing, whether people agree with me or not. And I think that’s my whole impetus in public service," Tucker said.
By voting "no," Tucker was the first person to prevent a unanimous vote of certification of a North Carolina election in at least 25 years. The only other recent election to have a “no” vote was the 9th Congressional District race in 2018 that was tainted by allegations of absentee ballot fraud by a political operative. The state board unanimously refused to certify that race.
Gary Bartlett, who was the State Board of Elections’ executive director for 20 years, said he often saw board members argue about results in particular races, but they always voted to certify the results once they finished laying out their arguments.
"Disagreement always happens, but they seem to work it out to ensure that the public understands who the rightful winner is," Bartlett said.
Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics at Catawba College, said a "no" vote is also unusual because certification votes are historically bipartisan and bureaucratic.
"In today’s environment, politics is getting injected into everything," Bitzer said.
That now includes state election boards, Bitzer said, as part of a national trend of political polarization.
"It’s unfortunately surprising, but maybe in the grand scheme of things it’s not surprising that Republicans and Democrats are going to disagree," Bitzer said.
Tucker said he wasn’t paying attention to stories about certification by boards in other states. And he said he didn't dispute who the winners are in North Carolina’s election this year. He felt, instead, that his "no" vote was a message to the State Board of Elections to follow the Constitution and allow the General Assembly to make the rules.
"To relook at this, and get it right before 2022 arrives," Tucker said. "I don’t like it any better that people don’t think the election was fair or balanced or whatever. And the peaceful transfer of power for our republic is the keynote behind what we’re able to do here in this country, and it’s stood for 233 years."
The question now — in North Carolina and in other states — is whether certification becomes a partisan fight after every election, and if that fight hurts the public’s trust in the democratic process.