Let's elect our elections chief

Putting secretary of state in charge should build confidence, limit meddling

North Carolina’s state elections board changed its composition nearly a half-dozen times from December 2016 - January 2019. It went from five members to eight to nine to zero (for nine months) to nine and finally back to five.

Over 24 months, battles between the General Assembly, the governor, and the courts whipsawed the board’s structure and leadership. The makeup of the panel empowered to implement election laws; determine voter and candidate eligibility; investigate campaign finance irregularities; convene hearings challenging voting or residency concerns; and hand out fines and issue criminal referrals was jumbled almost as often as some people get haircuts.

The elections board keeps drawing headlines as turf fights continue between the Republican-led General Assembly — which writes the statutes controlling the board — and Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper — who appoints the members.

The issues matter. How much leeway does the State Board of Elections have in changing election rules (or laws) without the legislature’s approval? Can the board settle a lawsuit involving the General Assembly without consulting, let alone getting consent from, its leaders? How impartial is the state board when it’s asked to reprimand or remove county board members accused of partisan activism?

These answers can affect the outcome of close elections. They certainly can enhance or undermine public confidence in the integrity of election management. They can fuel distrust and enable conspiracy-like speculation over whether your vote counts or every vote is counted accurately. 

Share Deregulator

Competent election officials must balance two often competing challenges: independence and accountability. Election managers need incentives to push them toward neutrality.

These problems can’t be solved overnight, if ever. But state leaders can take strides to ease the public’s worries. They can do so by scrapping the current elections board and giving a Council of State member — preferably the secretary of state — the responsibility of and accountability for managing North Carolina’s elections.

Doing so would put North Carolina in the national mainstream. A slim majority of states — 26— place an elected constitutional officer in charge of managing and policing elections, reports the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 24, it’s the secretary of state; the other two give the duties to the lieutenant governor. The remaining states appoint elections boards or officers. But only six are like us, with boards appointed by governors.

Letting the governor pick the state’s elections officials — even though he must choose from lists of candidates provided by the state parties — offers only an illusion of independence and accountability.

Why?

Our elections board is neither a judicial nor an administrative body. Or maybe it’s both. This causes more conflict. 

It’s unlike the federal judiciary, which is designed to be independent by giving judges life tenure. They shouldn’t be swayed by political passions, though Mr. Dooley’s “the Supreme Court follows the election returns” has merit. Judges are accountable to the Constitution, and, of course, corrupt or impaired jurists can be fired (impeached) by Congress. But removing a bad actor is hard. It should be.

And while statutes spell out the elections board’s duties, members have to make judgment calls. Its decision in September to settle a lawsuit with Democratic lawyer Marc Elias over absentee ballot deadlines and witness signatures without notifying the General Assembly has only intensified the prickly relations between the legislature and the board.

Letting voters choose the state’s top elections officer poses different concerns. Politicians are expected to have policy agendas. If they run under a partisan banner, fidelity to party can raise suspicions. Still, politicians face daily pressure to fly right. They can be replaced in regular elections, by impeachment, and in some states, by recall. They’ve sworn an oath to remain faithful to the law and the Constitution.

You might recall the secretaries of state in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania — two Democrats and two Republicans — courageously standing up to supporters of former President Trump (even Trump himself) when they faced threats if they refused to hand the election illegitimately to Trump. These public servants took accountability for their actions, at considerable personal peril.

That’s another reason I’d rather have an elected official than an appointed board running North Carolina’s elections. 

The secretary of state’s main roles are administrative. The office handles business filings, birth, death, and marriage records, and other official documents. Moving voter files to the office seems natural. Adding election management makes sense, too.

The secretary of state should be North Carolina’s chief elections officer and chair of a reconstituted elections board. The legislature would decide the makeup of the new board. The secretary could pick a state elections director who’d manage daily operations of the elections division and manage staff. But the secretary would be the primary point of accountability. Someone people could recognize and get to know more easily than a distant bureaucrat.

This change should come through a constitutional amendment, easing any temptation by the General Assembly or the governor to micromanage the office. And I’d limit the secretary of state to two terms, preventing one person from having control of sensitive personal information for too long under color of law.

This change wouldn’t end election shenanigans or eliminate voting irregularities. But when they’re suspected, and when they happen, we’d know where to seek relief.

The Mayor of Merlefest, the King of Telluride

Sam Bush is 69! One of three artists to play every Merlefest (along with Jerry Douglas and Peter Rowan).

Here’s a birthday tribute to Sam from her friend and baseball buddy Sierra Hull, who’s about as joyful as he is when performing, difficult as that is to believe.