Commentary

Veteran voting rights expert urges “no” vote on constitutional amendment to alter elections board

Vote “No” on the constitutional amendment to pack the State Board of Elections and Ethics

By Ted Arrington

The North Carolina General Assembly has proposed six important Constitutional Amendments for the voters to consider in November.  Among these is an amendment to the way individuals are appointed to the State Board of Elections and Ethics.  This Board appoints the members of the county election boards and, among other important duties, has general supervision of the election process state-wide.

Debate on this amendment may be lost among the more controversial proposals before the voters this November, such as a photo identification requirement for voting.  But the dangers inherent in this ballot initiative should not be overlooked.

The proposal is to change the board from a bipartisan body of five members appointed by the Governor from lists provided by the political parties to an eight member board appointed from lists provided by the majority and minority leaders of the General Assembly.  The Governor would have no real discretion in making these appointments.

There are two problems with this proposed change.

First, it is a clear power grab by the General Assembly, further unbalancing the checks that should operate in the state government.  By most measures, North Carolina has one of the weakest Governor’s offices in the fifty states and perhaps the strongest state legislature.  Actions that in any way weaken the office of the Governor or strengthen the General Assembly move the state further from an effective check and balance system so important to American constitutional government.

To some extent the political parties are also a check on politicians.  Candidates for public office in North Carolina today are largely private entrepreneurs: raising their own funds and managing their own campaigns.  Too often they are beholden only to private and unseen interests.

Political parties are the only groups with wider interests that bring various kinds of people together.  This is a kind of check on all politicians, who would otherwise be influenced only by big donors.  The proposed amendment would cut the political parties out of the appointment process, giving total control to the General Assembly.  Recommending individuals for appointment to the board by the Governor is a major function of the parties.

The second problem is the danger of inaction created by giving the board an even number of members – four Democrats and four Republicans.  If the new board split on some action 4/4, the result would be that the status quo would prevail.

In some situations there is nothing wrong with that, but in the case of the State Board of Elections and Ethics, there may not be a clear fallback position.  Inaction is simply not acceptable when the board is making decisions that affect ongoing election processes like determining whether extraordinary circumstances on the day of the election require the polls to remain open for longer hours.  A fallback to cumbersome judicial processes could seriously impede a fair and efficient election process.

I know something about how the existing system works.  From 1979 to 1991, I was appointed to the Charlotte/Mecklenburg Board of Elections six times by the State Board, including by Democratic, Republican, and bi-partisan majorities.

During the first three terms on the county board I was the minority Republican member, and in the last three terms I was the Republican Chair of the board.  In my time, we worked across the aisle to ensure fair elections for all North Carolinians.  While ugly partisanship has increased since my service, this constitutional amendment would do nothing to deal with that problem.

The old saying goes: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It is not clear that this amendment is offered to “fix” any problem with the existing structure.  Instead, it appears to be offered either as a distraction or simply to further increase the power of the General Assembly at the expense of the Governor and the parties.  Either way, North Carolina would be worse off if this ballot initiative passes.

Theodore S. Arrington is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte and has been an expert witness in more than forty voting rights cases throughout the United States and Canada, including some of the most important litigation in North Carolina.

 

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