The North Carolina State Board of Elections reappointed executive director Karen Brinson Bell for another two-year term, on a party-line 3–2 vote at a meeting Friday. She has served as the head of the state agency tasked with administering elections and campaign finance compliance since June 1, 2019.
North Carolina experienced historic levels of voter turnout during Brinson Bell’s tenure. More than 5.5 million voted out of 7.3 million registered in the 2020 election, marking a 75% turnout rate. This made North Carolina one of the leading states in voter turnout, according to the United States Elections Project. More than 1.3 million individuals in the state requested absentee ballots and the number of ballots cast by mail exceeded one million, another state record, data from the board show.
“It is not lost on me what a privilege and responsibility it is to ensure all North Carolinians are able to exercise their right to vote,” Brinson Bell said in a statement. “I will continue to work with State Board staff and the 100 county boards of elections to conduct secure, accessible, and fair elections for all eligible voters.”
However, Brinson Bell came under attack by Republican legislators at a Senate committee hearing in March over the board’s settlement of a lawsuit brought by voting rights groups. One of the main changes that resulted from the settlement was an extension of the absentee mail-in deadline from three days past Election Day to nine. The board also sought to modify rules last year to eliminate the witness requirement on absentee ballots as a means of preventing the spread of COVID-19, but ultimately reversed the change after a federal judge upheld the requirement.
At the time, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement the board “colluded with the ‘opposing’ side of a lawsuit funded by national Democrats and agreed to a consent order that violates North Carolina election laws.”
As Policy Watch reported previously, state House and Senate Republicans have filed two bills this session that would require House and Senate leaders to sign off on settlements negotiated by the Attorney General. The Senate voted 28-21 along party lines to approve SB 360. The bill was sponsored by the three co-chairs of the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee, including Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke and Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, who questioned and pressured Brinson Bell at the committee’s meeting. The House version HB 606 was passed 60-48 in a partisan split vote earlier this month and referred to Senate Rules.
Brinson Bell served as director for the Transylvania County Board of Elections from 2011 to 2015. Prior to that, she was a district elections technician for the board, according to a press release from the board.
Brinson Bell was appointed to the directorship in 2019 in a similar partisan 3-2 vote not long after the board went through a series of restructurings as a result of litigation between Gov. Roy Cooper and the legislature. The five members of the board are appointed by the Governor.
Brinson Bell’s new term will end May 15, 2023.