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Election board chaos has troubling consequences

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

The state's evolving election board crisis may have the public rolling its eyes at the latest example of how a hyper-partisan political culture has brought about dysfunction to governing in North Carolina.

But as sure as that is frustrating to the counties and the people of North Carolina trying to make decisions locally on election matters, a more serious consequence of the state's legislative dysfunction has emerged — an effort to blur the lines of our laws to enable an election outcome.

The current crisis erupted when a three-judge state panel dissolved the N.C. State Board of Elections on Dec. 28. The court had earlier concluded that the GOP-created board was unconstitutional. The nine-member so-called Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement was found to be unconstitutional last October. The board had been hastily formed by legislative Republicans to replace the original — and constitutionally sound — elections board in 2016 in an effort to weaken newly-elected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's power to appoint a majority of election board members.

The court ruled in October that the GOP's redesign of the board was unlawful, but apparently allowed the board to operate to avoid chaos and disruption until the Legislature and Cooper could find a compromise board structure. Cooper had moved to create a temporary state elections board until the newly constituted one is established effectively on Jan. 31. Republican lawmakers, however, have blocked that effort. Subsequently, in the midst of an investigation by the board of elections of what could turn out to be election fraud in the state's 9th Congressional District election, the judges last month declared the current board disbanded.

That decision has left the probe in the 9th District case unresolved, while also putting local elections boards on hold, too, as their existence may be deemed unconstitutional as a result of the October court ruling. Hence, the state and local boards find themselves in limbo at least until the end of the month.

The resulting frustration, inconvenience and pettiness might be tolerable until the end of January, except for a related legal development in the 9th District election outcome — for which the election board had refused to name a winner. Apparently for some, however, the board's demise is not such a bad result — especially since investigators of the alleged fraud in the 9th District election are probing alleged links to the GOP candidate now angling to be seated in Congress before the matter is resolved.

Mark Harris, whose slim election lead over Democrat Dan McCready on Nov. 6 now appears to be in question, has filed a lawsuit claiming the election board, being declared unconstitutional and disbanded, must in effect vacate its probe of alleged absentee ballot fraud, and the courts should declare him the election winner. 

First and foremost, Harris should not be given any pass simply because the former election board has been disbanded. Would a presiding judge drop criminal charges in a case if he or she suddenly got sick and had to postpone a court date? Absolutely not. The investigation, findings and evidence are still pending for resolution at a future date. It’s also obvious that finding out if fraud occurred in the 9th District race is much more important to the public, as a first priority, than seating someone in Congress who may later have to answer for laws being broken.

More likely, however, a new election will be needed to determine the winner of that race. The mere possibility that any politician might use the current lack of a state election board as an opportunity to grab an open congressional seat illustrates how the current dysfunction in our politics has created very serious consequences.

Voters should recognize the scheme as nothing more than an end-run around the system of laws that are in place to protect the integrity of the election process. And surely, this is more reason why the public should be demanding a bi-partisan legislative culture that ensures the protection of the checks and balances that allow government to work for the interests of North Carolina's citizens — not for the politicians, who are in effect, temporary overseers for those processes.

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