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Senators Press NC Elections Chief For Answers On Ballot Deal

Erin Keever

RALEIGH — North Carolina Republican senators peppered the state's top elections administrator on Tuesday with questions about a legal settlement that altered rules for the fall election, accusing her of carrying out unlawful balloting changes and reducing voter confidence.

State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell responded to two hours of questioning by a Senate committee about the legal agreement that the board reached in September with a union-affiliated group. GOP legislative leaders, who were parties to the related lawsuit, have argued they were kept out of the loop on negotiations so Democratic voting preferences could be implemented in a high-stakes election. Courts ultimately upheld most of the agreement.

“The actions undertaken by the Board of Elections under director Brinson Bell’s leadership compromised the most essential fixture in or form of government: trust ... that those administering elections are fair and impartial,” said Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican.

But Brinson Bell defended her actions and those of the board. She said they helped more legally cast mail-in ballots get counted after worries about postage delays during the pandemic. The board calculated as many as roughly 10,000 out of the record 5.5 million ballots cast in the Nov. 3 election were counted thanks to key settlement provisions.

“I do believe that we have the trust and confidence of our voters, and we worked to ensure that they knew that their vote would count and that they could cast their ballots safely without the fear of disease," Brinson Bell told the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee. Voters, she added, “had difficulty trusting the U.S. Postal Service, not their election officials.”

The five-member board, which has a Democratic majority, unanimously agreed to give Brinson Bell the authority to authorize the settlement covering three key areas. The agreement delayed the date set in state law by which absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day could be received by counties and still count from Nov. 6 to Nov. 12. It also described how absentee ballots lacking full witness information on their outer envelopes could still be counted without requiring the voter to complete a whole new ballot.

The GOP legislative leaders and President Donald Trump’s campaign challenged the changes in court, saying they bypassed laws approved by the General Assembly and altered rules after voting had already started. While a federal trial judge’s ruling in October led state board officials to alter their guidance on witness information, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately declined to disturb the new ballot deadline.

Republican senators and Brinson Bell disagreed about whether the board actually changed state law — the purview of the General Assembly.

Brinson Bell said the board has the power to settle lawsuits, especially during an unprecedented moment like the pandemic. She said the board faced dozens of lawsuits last year and worried failing to settle would result in a court approving more expansive changes.

“The rules were changed, but the laws were not changed, and ultimately we were able to count 5.5 million votes,” she said, adding that it was a state attorney that negotiated the settlement details. Republicans, nonetheless, weren't convinced.

“This was nothing but an unprecedented effort to usurp the North Carolina General Assembly," said GOP Sen. Joyce Krawiec of Forsyth County. “I just find it amazing that you still believe that you didn't change a law.” Democratic committee members came to Brinson Bell's defense, pointing out that no judge had declared that she did something illegal.

A House elections committee briefly questioned Brinson Bell about the settlement last month.

Tuesday’s Senate hearing was held in a newly renovated Legislative Building auditorium. The meeting space has been reformatted as a congressional-style hearing room where lawmakers, sitting at elevated desks, can interview witnesses and Cabinet or commission nominees.