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Judges block GOP revamp of NC election boards, for now

Kyle Ingram, Avi Bajpai, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in News & Features

A panel of judges on Thursday temporarily blocked a new elections law from taking effect which would have stripped Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of all his appointments to election boards and given them to lawmakers instead.

The law, which was enacted in October as Senate Bill 749, overhauls the structure of state and local election boards, splitting each of them equally between Republicans and Democrats and giving all appointments to legislative leaders.

Attorneys for Cooper and Republican legislative leaders spent an hour-and-a-half presenting arguments to the three-judge panel, but Judges Edwin Wilson, Lori Hamilton and Andrew Womble deliberated for only a few minutes before announcing that they would grant Cooper’s request for a preliminary injunction.

Most of the changes were set to go into effect on Jan. 1, but will now be blocked pending further rulings.

The judges, two Republicans (Hamilton and Womble) and one Democrat (Wilson), temporarily blocked the law from going into effect before a trial can be held on Cooper’s lawsuit. They instructed attorneys for Cooper and GOP legislative leaders to work together on devising a schedule for the trial, which they said should ideally take place in January or February.

The case could ultimately reach the N.C. Supreme Court, which may be more inclined to rule in favor of GOP legislative leaders after Republicans regained a majority on the high court in last year’s election.

Lawsuit filed by Cooper soon after bill passed

Cooper vetoed the bill, but Republicans used their supermajority to override his rejection.

Shortly after the override vote, Cooper sued top Republicans, arguing that the new law unconstitutionally removes power from the executive branch.

 

“The North Carolina General Assembly takes direct aim at established precedents and once again seeks to significantly interfere with the Governor’s constitutionally assigned executive branch duty of election law enforcement and to take much of that power for itself,” the lawsuit said.

On Thursday, Cooper attorney Jim Phillips said that the judges were bound by past precedent that made it clear that the law should be blocked while the trial continues. Martin Warf, an attorney for Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, argued that the other side had not shown that the law represented a clear violation of the state constitution, and shouldn’t be blocked prematurely.

Republicans have passed several laws in recent years stripping the governor of his appointments and giving them to the legislature instead. They argue that the General Assembly is the branch of government closest to the people, so it should have more authority over the composition of unelected boards and commissions.

As for SB 749, Republicans argue that the bill encourages bipartisan cooperation, ensuring that decisions regarding election administration aren’t motivated by partisan politics.

Lauren Horsch, a spokesperson for Berger, said if Cooper’s lawsuit succeeds it would give Democrats continued control over the elections board. ”It’s critically important that North Carolinians trust the outcomes of the 2024 elections and legislative leadership will continue to fight to ensure that,” Horsch said in a statement.

Critics point out that the law provides few remedies for deadlocked votes among election boards.

“The deadlocks that will be created on these new boards of elections at the state and local levels likely will reduce early voting and create longer lines at the polls,” Cooper said in a statement. “It will also undermine fair elections and faith in our democracy by sending disputes to our highly partisan legislature and courts.”

The two highest-ranking Democrats in the legislature, House Minority Leader Robert Reives and Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue, applauded Thursday’s ruling, saying in a statement that the three-judge panel’s “clear rejection of the GOP’s attempted power grab is a win for voters and our state constitution.”


©2023 The Charlotte Observer. Visit at charlotteobserver.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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