North Carolina judges block GOP effort to reshape state’s election boards

A bipartisan panel of judges in North Carolina has ruled that the Republican-controlled state legislature improperly tried to seize control of state and local election boards from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper – a consequential decision in a state that could emerge as a key battleground in November’s presidential election.

The decision blocks a portion of a controversial voting law that changed the makeup of these boards and leaves in place, for the time being, the current configuration, which favors the party of the sitting governor. The state Board of Elections, for instance, currently has three Democrats and two Republicans. The ruling also affects 100 county boards that oversee elections in the Tar Heel State.

Republican leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly did not immediately indicate whether they intend to appeal the decision. It could end up before North Carolina’s elected Supreme Court, which flipped to Republican control last year and has ruled in favor of the GOP in other high-profile cases.

In this ruling, the three-judge panel – made up of two Republicans and one Democrat – unanimously sided with Cooper that the election measure passed by state Republican lawmakers last year “infringes upon the governor’s Constitutional duties” because the election boards carry out “executive functions.”

And the lawmakers’ actions, the judges said, marked “the most stark and blatant removal of appointment power from the Governor” since state Supreme Court decisions earlier in Cooper’s tenure that rebuffed GOP legislative efforts to curb his powers.

Previous efforts by Republicans in the General Assembly to change the makeup of election boards have been rejected by the courts, and by voters in a 2018 referendum.

In a statement posted on social media Tuesday, Cooper said that the state elections board “continues to uphold the highest standards of fairness, and Republican leaders should stop their efforts to sow chaos before the November elections.”

Lauren Horsch, a spokeswoman for state Sen. Phil Berger, the top Republican in the North Carolina Senate, said in an email that Cooper was trying to retain “complete, single-party control of elections administration” in the state.

“One should question why he so vehemently opposes the creation of a bipartisan board of elections. What’s he afraid of?” she wrote.

The three judges in this case previously had temporarily blocked this part of the law from taking effect.

Voting rights groups had feared that the change in boards’ composition could lead to paralyzing deadlocks on key decisions, such as certifying election results. Under the law, the state board would have moved from a five-member panel – where Democrats currently control three seats – to an eight-member board, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and all appointed by legislators. It removed the governor’s appointment powers.

Local boards would also have become evenly divided by party – with the majority party in the state legislature empowered to pick the chair of each if the board members could not quickly agree on a leader.

Republican state lawmakers who pushed the change had argued that it would bring bipartisan balance to decision-making around elections. Several lawmakers had accused state election officials of reaching a “collusive settlement” with Democratic litigants to extend the deadline to count absentee ballots during the 2020 election.

The measure “levels the playing field,” state Sen. Paul Newton, a bill sponsor, said during a committee meeting last year. “If you’ve got a split board … the only way you can get changes in election policy or administration is by working together.”

North Carolina – which former President Donald Trump won narrowly in 2020 – has been eyed by President Joe Biden’s advisers as an important piece of his reelection strategy, given the state’s fast-changing demographics.

The state is also home to what is expected to be a highly competitive gubernatorial race this fall to succeed Cooper, who is term limited.

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