Voting disputes on Sunday highlight the political divisions at the NC Board of Elections

North Carolina election officials held a series of votes Tuesday that highlighted political divisions within the State Board of Elections and among election officials at the county level, as a lawsuit looms that could upend the way election rules are set.

At the center were the political battles over early voting and especially Sunday voting. In the background: an ongoing power struggle over the administration of state elections.

Republicans in North Carolina have been trying to limit the availability of early voting for more than a decade. They mainly object to the vote on Sunday. The day has been widely supported by liberal political groups who encourage black voters — who lean overwhelmingly Democratic — to vote after church services on Sunday mornings, a tactic often called “souls to the polls.”

Previous efforts by the Republican Party to restrict voting on Sundays have been ruled unconstitutional by the court due to racial discrimination. But divisions remain. And those divisions were again in stark contrast Tuesday, as the state legislature finalized plans for early elections for all 100 counties ahead of this fall’s elections.

“I never support the Sunday vote,” said Kevin Lewis, one of the board’s Republican members.

“I’m 100% in favor of voting on Sunday,” said Jeff Carmon, one of the Democratic members of the board.

Lewis, Carmon and the rest of the State Board of Elections heard at Tuesday’s meeting from leaders of a dozen counties where local election officials could not make a unanimous decision on their early election plans and needed the state board to make the decision for them . Almost every dispute involved Sunday votes; Some disagreements also centered on how many early election polling stations should be provided, or where they should be located.

In almost all disputes, votes were divided – at the county level and at the state level – along party lines. Ultimately, all Democratic plans prevailed, as Democrats hold a 3-2 majority in the State Board of Elections.

Republican state lawmakers have been trying to change that power dynamic for years, saying it damages voters’ confidence in elections if one party controls decisions about election rules. They insist on an evenly distributed government and want to give themselves more control over it. Democrats respond that Republicans never raised these concerns when Republicans controlled the Board of Elections and accused the Republican Party of a partisan power grab to try to tilt the balance of power in this key swing state.

There is a lawsuit pending over the legality of that GOP plan; Democrats have won in the early stages of the case so far, but North Carolina’s Republican-led Supreme Court is expected to have the final say.

Political division on the board

The State Board of Elections, like all hundred county election boards, consists of five members: three from the political party that controls the governor’s office, currently the Democratic Party, and two from the largest other political party, currently the Republican Party.

Republican lawmakers have long tried — often successfully — to weaken the power of the governor’s office. But one area where they have failed multiple times is election administration.

After Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was elected in 2016, the Legislature passed laws that changed the composition of the Board of Elections to get rid of Democrats’ new 3-2 majority, but these were shot down by the Supreme Court. North Carolina, which found violations of the law. the state constitution. That’s why Republicans proposed amending the state constitution. They put their plan to the vote in 2018 as a constitutional amendment. Although voters approved three other constitutional amendments on the ballot that year, they rejected that amendment.

Then, in 2023, Republicans took control of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Later that year, Republican lawmakers passed another bill to remove the governor’s control of the State Board of Elections.

Despite similar ideas recently being declared unconstitutional and rejected by voters at the ballot box, Republican legislative leaders said they were confident the new Republican Supreme Court majority would rule in their favor and allow the changes to take effect. They pointed to a dissent written in one of the earlier cases by Paul Newby, a Republican who is now the court’s chief justice.

The Court’s new Republican majority has also overturned previous precedents in other high-profile election law cases — on voter identification and gerrymandering — in rulings seen as key victories for the Republican Party ahead of this year’s elections.

On Monday, legislative leaders formally asked the Supreme Court to expedite the case over who should audit the election, allowing it to skip the North Carolina Court of Appeals and potentially be resolved in months instead of years. A decision is expected as soon as this week, leaving open the possibility that the case could be resolved before the 2024 elections.

In the meantime, the State Board of Elections has taken action to quickly take action itself. In recent years, the board has required counties to complete their early voting plans by August or September. This year, the board’s Democratic chairman, Alan Hirsch, moved the deadline to May 7, with the final vote on any challenged plans taking place Tuesday in early June.

Republicans accused Democrats of changing that deadline for partisan reasons to speed up their decisions before the Supreme Court could get involved.

Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, the state and national Republican Parties sent a memo expressing concerns about plans for early elections in 20 counties across the state. Lewis cited these memos during Tuesday’s meeting and asked for a pause on any decisions until later this summer to allow more time to analyze the Republican Party’s claims.

The Democratic members of the board voted against.

“It seems like a Hail Mary pass to try to delay this decision,” said Siobhan Millen, one of the Democrats on the board.

Critics of the Republican Party’s plan to create evenly distributed boards say this will lead to instances where members of either political party could bring the system to a standstill, as no early voting plans would be approved at all unless both parties could agree on the plan. . Democrats could close voting options in heavily red counties; Republicans could close off voting options in heavily blue counties.

Republican lawmakers acknowledged that this is a possibility. They have said they see it as a plus if it could force both sides to work together to reach a compromise.

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