GOP lawmakers expedite Board of Elections bill without Democratic, public input

GOP lawmakers expedite Board of Elections bill without Democratic, public input

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett)

Perhaps the sixth time is the charm?

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) unveiled another attempt Tuesday by Republican legislators to restructure the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement — this time through a fast-track process that can’t be amended by lawmakers who have to vote “yea” or “nay.”

We believe this puts to rest the long-standing battle between Gov. [Roy] Cooper and the legislature over the Board of Elections,” he said during an afternoon press conference Tuesday.

The measure, which was put into a conference report, wasn’t released online to the public until over an hour into a House Rules Committee meeting on the subject. A final 19-page conference report was released to committee members less than 20 minutes before they voted to move it forward to the House floor.

The House and Senate could pass the measure Wednesday. Because it is presented as a conference report, it can not be amended — not by a committee or on the chamber floors.

Legislating is certainly not a perfect craft,” Lewis explained, apologizing to his colleagues for all the waiting they had to endure.

Cooper and Republican legislative leaders said they were negotiating for the past couple weeks on how to proceed with the State Board since a court ruled the structure unconstitutional — though neither have disclosed any details about that process.

Cooper’s office did not return a request for comment Tuesday about the new conference report, and they haven’t returned multiple requests over the past week about their negotiations over the State Board.

Lewis said during the press conference that Cooper hadn’t seen the new measure but it contained many of the governor’s requested changes.

I wish that he was standing here with us today and this was a done deal, but this is the very best that we can do,” Lewis added. “This is simply our best attempt to honor not only the requests of the Governor, but also of the court.”

The structure of the State Board was set to expire today after the three-judge panel that ruled it unconstitutional granted an extension to allow for the investigation into the 9th congressional district ballot fraud to continue.

The panel, however, granted another reprieve Tuesday to last until noon Dec. 28, or until the State Board certified all statewide elections, whichever came first.

Still, Lewis said the 9th district investigation made the need for legislative action urgent, hence the conference report put forward.

Democrats at the House Rules committee did not debate the conference report but asked a lot of questions. There were several “no” votes, but the “ayes” apparently had it.

House Democratic leader Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Wake) was not immediately available after the committee meeting to comment about the process.

The conference report, or House Bill 1029, is not dissimilar to the previous State Board structure in place before Cooper’s election. It allows for him to appoint five members from two lists of five individuals nominated by the state Republican and Democratic Party chairs, so long as he does not appoint more than three individuals registered with the same political party.

The nine-member current Board is made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and an unaffiliated member. Eight members were appointed by Cooper from two lists of six individuals from the state Republican and Democratic Party chairs. That Board then appointed its ninth member.

Each of the five members under HB 1029 would serve four-year terms beginning May 1, with no member serving more than two consecutive terms.

Some changes to this measure include reforms governing who can serve on the State Board and what activities they can participate in while serving.

Individuals are not eligible to serve if they hold any elective or appointive office, hold any office in a political party or organization, serve as a campaign manager or treasurer of any candidate in a primary or election, if they are a current employee of the state, a community college or local school administrative unit or if they worked in any paid capacity with an organization that engaged in electioneering within 48 months of serving.

There are several prohibited activities in HB 1029 for members of the State Board, including making a reportable contribution to a candidate for public office, soliciting contributions for a candidate, political committee or referendum committee and making written or oral statements supporting or opposing candidates for public office.

Sen. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) said during the press conference that the changes were sparked by the GOP’s complaints against former State Board Chairman Andy Penry, who authored tweets criticizing President Donald Trump. He resigned after the complaint, saying that he did not want to distract from the ongoing 9th district investigation.

The measure also provides that once the State Board is appointed, they will select an executive director.

HB 1029 would also again separate the Board of Elections and the Ethics, Lobbying and Campaign Finance office. It would create an eight-member State Ethics Commission with four members appointed by Cooper and four members appointed by the General Assembly.

Two of the Governor’s appointees would serve an initial one-year term and two would serve an initial three-year term. Two of the legislature’s appointees serve an initial two-year term and two serve an initial four-year term.

The measure returns lobbying enforcement to the Secretary of State’s Office and allows for the State Board to investigate campaign finance claims.

It expands county boards of elections to five members (there are currently four) with the State Board appointing all members and the Governor appointing the chairs.

The proposed bill would also render State Board investigations confidential, extending the time lawmakers have to draw new districts if ordered to do so by the court, and requiring absentee ballots to be notarized or witnessed by two people. The Ethics Commission can also issue confidential recommendations to the State Board of Elections regarding the appropriateness of a criminal referral for campaign finance violations, according to HB 1029.

Lewis had filed another bill last week restructuring the State Board, which would have repealed six boards and commissions and the constitutional amendments publication commission — HB 1029 was stripped of those provisions.

He had also announced in the Tuesday press conference that the conference report would contain an outline for a new primary in the 9th congressional district if a new election was ordered. It too was ultimately stripped after he couldn’t get enough legislators on board.

Current State Board Spokesman Pat Gannon declined comment last week on pending legislation. He said they are focused on the investigation in the 9th congressional district.

As this agency has done for the past couple of years, if and when the law changes, we will do whatever it takes to comply with it and ensure as smooth of a transition as possible to a new structure or organization,” he said.