North Carolina governor vetoes bill that would take away his control over election boards

RALEIGH — North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed Republican legislation Thursday that would take away his powers to choose State Board of Elections members and give them to legislative leaders as the 2024 campaign cycle begins in the closely divided state.

Cooper already had signaled a veto was coming, which sets up override votes likely next month. The GOP has narrow veto-proof majorities in each chamber and the final bill passed the House and Senate last week on party-line votes.

The measure, if enforced, would remove from Cooper and future governors the ability to pick an elections board that contains a majority of appointees from their own party. For decades, the governor’s party has held a 3-2 seat advantage.

Republicans have said such division breeds distrust among voters about board decisions. Their proposal would increase the board to eight members and give the House speaker, the Senate leader and the minority party leaders in each chamber two seats to appoint.

That likely will give Democrats and Republicans four positions apiece. The bill sponsors contend having an even split will encourage bipartisan consensus in election decisions, building confidence for voters about outcomes.

In his veto message, Cooper said the legislation “could doom our state’s elections to gridlock” by promoting board stalemates that could lead to fewer early in-person voting sites and give the General Assembly or courts more chances to decide the outcomes of close elections.

Former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was riddled with fraud in part have prompted a wave of GOP election laws and administrative overhauls as he seeks to return to the White House.

The bill is a “serious threat to our democracy, particularly after the nation just saw a presidential candidate try to strongarm state officials into reversing his losing election result,” Cooper wrote.

North Carolina was Trump’s narrowest victory in 2020 and is expected to be a battleground next year. Democrats see North Carolina as a pickup opportunity for President Joe Biden in 2024. North Carolina Republican legislators, who successfully have advanced these and other election changes, haven’t talked about Trump.

The measure also would eliminate the 3-2 split that happens on county boards by reducing their seats to four, with legislative leaders each naming one appointee.

Republican Sen. Warren Daniel of Burke County, a primary bill sponsor, expressed optimism for a successful override that would establish “truly bipartisan boards of elections in North Carolina.”

“Single-party control has led to distrust and skepticism among voters,” Daniel said in a news release later Thursday. “Voters should be asking themselves why Gov. Cooper is so desperate to maintain his partisan grip on the State Board of Elections.”

The changes to the boards would begin Jan. 1, and the state board would have until Jan. 10 to decide on hiring an executive director or it will fall upon Senate leader Phil Berger to pick one.

Critics of the measure say it could lead to the ouster of current Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell. While Brinson Bell is widely respected among colleagues nationally, Republicans were hostile to her in 2021 for her role in a 2020 legal settlement that eased some rules for mailed ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic beyond what state law permitted.

Litigation seeking to block the law’s enforcement could follow any successful veto override.

State courts have thrown out efforts initiated by Republican lawmakers since late 2016 to erode gubernatorial oversight of elections. The state Supreme Court now has a majority of Republican justices. Cooper also mentioned Thursday that voters rejected a 2018 proposed constitutional amendment that would have created an eight-member state board chosen from lists of nominees from legislative leaders.

Cooper already vetoed an election bill in August that would end a three-day grace period for voting by mail and give more latitude to partisan poll observers in voting locations. An override attempt has not yet occurred.

(WATCH: CMS prepares for potential override of Gov. Cooper’s ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ veto)

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