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NC's Bipartisan Election Board Has Seen Plenty Of Partisan Fights

Erin Keever
Voters cast ballots at Belmont Elementary School on Nov. 3, 2020.

This article is made possible through a partnership between WFAE and Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of our republishing policy.

The 2020 election was contested at the polls and in the courts. Georgia’s secretary of state was the focus of intense criticism and White House pressure. North Carolina’s elections authority also had its share of political controversy, and it wasn’t the first time.

On the Twitter page for North Carolina’s secretary of state, Elaine Marshall, there’s a line in her bio that pre-answers a question she gets a lot: “I do not administer North Carolina’s elections.” Marshall said that leading up to the 2020 election, she was constantly bombarded with calls accusing her of lying and telling her not to certify the results.

"When people hear about what secretaries of state have done nationally, or when they get an email asking them to express their opinion to their secretary of state, there’s never a distinction made," Marshall said. "There are about a third of us in the national association who don’t do elections."

What Marshall does is work with the state’s businesses, keeping records of their formation and finances. Election administration is left to the North Carolina State Board of Elections. It has five partisan members — three from the governor’s party and two from the opposition party. Mac McCorkle, a politics professor at Duke University and director of its Polis Center for Politics, said the bipartisan makeup helps with transparency — at least for the state’s political parties.

"Both parties should know what’s going on," McCorkle said. "They have representatives on the board, so there’s not a surprise or kind of unilateral decision making that’s only found out about until afterwards."

He compared that setup with Georgia’s secretary of state, who makes election decisions without input from the other party. For example, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger recently announced investigations into voter groups and voiced support for more restrictive voter ID laws.

McCorkle said the secretary system could lead to conflicts of interest. He pointed to 2018, when Georgia's previous secretary of state, Brian Kemp, was running for governor. He said the board system in North Carolina helps avoid such conflicts of interest. Members are appointed, so they don’t run in elections they might administer. Election administration is also the board’s only job.

How A Board Differs From A Secretary Of State

North Carolina’s state board system has existed in some form since around 1900, when the state was professionalizing its election process. In its modern form, the State Board of Elections administers campaign finance laws and works with the 100 county-level election boards to make sure primaries and general elections run smoothly. North Carolina is one of 10 states that have a board or commission run elections. South Carolina also has a bipartisan board, as do Virginia and Tennessee.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections is bipartisan, but it’s meant to be impartial. Partisan members are supposed to be politically neutral in their decisions, and there are rules about how they can engage in politics while serving. Chris Cooper, a politics professor at Western Carolina University, said their actions may still be seen as partisan.

"I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that people will assume that they are, right?" Cooper said. "And that they’ll read motives into our state board, whether they’re realistically there or not."

The board has been at the center of political controversy in the past few years. Historically, North Carolina's governor appointed three of the board’s five members from his party and two from a list provided by the opposition party. After Roy Cooper was elected governor in 2016, the General Assembly passed several bills restricting his ability to appoint members to the board and changing its structure. A number of lawsuits between the governor and the legislature followed.

Between 2016 and 2018, the board fluctuated from being vacant to having nine members. Western Carolina University's Cooper said the fight was about political control in North Carolina, which historically has placed more power in the General Assembly.

"Who’s gonna have that power?" Cooper said. "And who’s gonna have that power of appointment? And what is the right of the legislature to send names, as opposed to leave it up to the governor to make his own decision?"

Boards Have Controversies, Too

The State Board of Elections drew controversy again in 2020, this time over how it administered the election during the COVID-19 pandemic. In September, the boardsettled a lawsuit with a voter interest group, making it easier for voters to fix their absentee by mail ballots if there was a problem. The settlement also extended the time absentee ballots could arrive at election offices by six days.

Republican legislators said only the General Assembly has the legal authority to change absentee ballot rules. The board’s two Republican members resigned in protest. One of the Republican replacements later voted against certifying the 2020 election results. Republican lawmakers recently suggested an oversight board to watch the decisions of the state board.

McCorkle said that may not improve anything.

"To kind of police the bureaucratic agency, the Republicans’ solution is to create another bureaucratic agency," McCorkle said.

McCorkle said there are philosophical arguments for and against the current state board system. But he said partisanship overlays any discussion of election administration. That’s been an increasing trend in North Carolina because the state’s election outcomes have been razor-thin since Barack Obama won the state in 2008.

"North Carolina, we’ve been on edge for the last decade," McCorkle said. "And so any change in the election procedure, anything that seems to give a procedural advantage — both parties are on guard, really on guard here."

They’re on guard for any voting laws, too.

Georgia, until recently a solidly red state with a Republican legislature, passed a law that automatically registered people to vote when they apply for a driver’s license unless they opt out. McCorkle said politicians in North Carolina would see that kind of policy decision as intensely partisan.

He also thought 2020 was more controversial because of the pandemic and the changes in the election that were needed. When the pandemic ends, he expected the State Board of Elections would need to intervene less.

That could mean fewer partisan fights over election administration in North Carolina. But he didn't expect tranquility any time soon.

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Michael Falero is a radio reporter, currently covering voting and the 2020 election. He previously covered environment and energy for WFAE. Before joining WFAE in 2019, Michael worked as a producer for a number of local news podcasts based in Charlotte and Boston. He's a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop intensive on Cape Cod and UNC Chapel Hill.