My Q&A with The Assembly

A follow-up on my "red meat" story about election reforms in N.C.

I’ve gotten encouraging feedback about the long-form story The Assembly published last week from me about the debates over election fixes in the state. Thank you! I reposted the full story yesterday, which you can read here.

One excellent feature of The Assembly is a weekly Q&A founder/editor Kyle Villemain publishes with authors of the in-depth stories on the site. (Another reason it’s well worth the modest subscription cost.) I was happy to dive right in!

I left the comment section on the main story open for all. I’ll do so for this as well. Feel free to let me know what you think.

Here you go —


Wednesday's piece on election reform generated a good deal of conversation. So we've tapped Rick Henderson for a follow up Q&A to keep it going.

Rick didn't shy away from critiques in his piece. But ultimately he offered hope of a bipartisan path forward, based on the state's experience in 2018 and 2019.

So today we're going a little deeper. How'd he approach the writing and what did he make of the response to his piece? Plus a zoom out: After years of writing on politics in NC, what does he think of political commentary in the state? And what's it like jumping from traditional media into the world of Substack? 

Click below to read Rick's piece, and scroll for our Q&A with him. 

"Election Red Meat"
Republicans and Democrats vehemently disagree about how to handle North Carolina’s elections, a fight that will only get more intense over the next two years. It’s time to find a modicum of common ground.

Q&A with Rick Henderson

The Assembly: In your piece, you critique one Republican bill, praise another, and weigh in on national legislation -- all on a controversial topic: election security and reform. What was top of mind for you as you approached writing this piece?

Rick: It seems as if election controversies follow me around. I wrote about the 2006 Denver election, which took place not long after I started working at the Rocky Mountain News. I returned to North Carolina in April 2009, just as the Mike Easley campaign-finance scandal was coming to a head. We had the John Edwards/Bunny Mellon controversy (which led to me getting a 30-second hit on “The Today Show” and a clip on “The Daily Show” when Jon Stewart still was there!), the Bev Perdue fundraising mess, Pat McCrory’s initial refusal to concede in 2016, the various iterations of the State Board of Elections, and continual battles over redistricting. I’ve been immersed in this for so long that writing more of a think piece seemed natural. I appreciate the chance to bring it to a wider audience, not to mention a fresh set of eyes who could help me with a more narrative approach.

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I come to this from the perspective of a market or classical liberal. Government should protect individual rights and personal freedom, provide essential public services, and then largely let people lead their lives through civic and commercial and community institutions. But, so long as we stay within the constitution’s guardrails, we decide what public services government will provide, and at what cost, at the voting booth. 

I’ve also grown stronger in my belief that it should be easy for eligible voters to participate in elections. I’m delighted we had record turnout last year, COVID be damned. I continue hearing the occasional argument from the right that we’d get better electoral outcomes if voters were more informed about politics and government. Given the history of actual voter suppression not so long ago, especially in the South, it’s not a reach for people to see that argument as a call to limit participation, with racial underpinnings.

Instead, I’m motivated by processes rather than results. (The great economist and N.C. native Thomas Sowell — A Conflict of Visions — is my touchstone here.) Construct an electoral system that makes it convenient for everyone who’s eligible to cast ballots and let all the voters decide which candidates, campaigns, and issues prevail. 

If your goal seems to be limiting voter participation, then you’re probably not very confident in the appeal of your agenda.

We have a written constitution and laws that support it, but they’re cheapened when people don’t trust the integrity of elections. If people believe their vote has been compromised, or that it’s been diluted because of fraud or irregularities, then our entire civic culture is in danger of collapsing. We become susceptible to conspiracies and demagoguery — as we’ve experienced recently.

Since the last election, we’ve had H.R. 1, which the story mentioned, a bill that would centralize election management in Washington, among other things. We’ve had new election laws from Republican legislatures in Arizona and Iowa and Georgia. Even if some of this activity is addressing gaps in our system, the weaponization of election management worries me, and I hoped to offer a bit of optimism that North Carolina could get things more right than wrong if people turned down the volume of discourse just a little.

The AssemblyTell us about some of the odd bedfellows on this issue, and what you think about how the debate is unfolding?

Rick: The most enlightening reporting I did for the story was a 30-minute conversation with Gerry Cohen. He was a lawyer for the General Assembly for 37 years, and spent much of that time legally vetting the language as bills were drafted. He retired but is now a member of the Wake County Board of Elections. He’s a Democrat, but when the chairman’s seat on the State Board of Elections was open, Republicans suggested him as a candidate! 

Gerry gave me the piece of information I needed to hold the SB326 piece together: Moving the deadline to accept mail absentee ballots from three days after the election to 5 p.m. Election Day wouldn’t speed up certification by one minute. The ballot canvass, where challenges are heard, late-arriving military and overseas ballots are counted, provisional ballots are dealt with, and the like, remains 10 days after the election. Certification remains three weeks after the election.

Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus), the sponsor of the bill, said repeatedly the reason to move up the deadline was so the races could be called on election night. I assume he meant the calls by media organizations, which mean nothing. Close races still require time for canvassing, and the allowance for potential recounts. The races are “called” when they’re certified.

My friends at the [conservative] Locke Foundation defend the bill, saying it would eliminate any concern about late-arriving domestic mailed ballots, verifying postmarks, and the like. That’s a legitimate argument for the bill. I disagree with it. We’ve had that three-day cushion for more than a decade, and I see no reason to change it. But Newton never made the argument Locke is making. Or at least he didn’t when he was introducing the bill and was asked about it by Democrats.

My guess is, the bill will pass, largely as written, along party lines, and Governor Cooper will veto it. If Republicans amend it and restore the three-day grace period, it may get Democratic votes and even the governor’s approval.

The Assembly: What's been the main pushback since your piece was published?

Rick: Aside from the discussion with Locke, I got some pushback about the other bill, SB360. It would require the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tem to approve any legal settlement if they’re named as parties in the settlement. My critics suggested the bill could violate separation of powers, since the State Board is an executive branch agency. My answer is that the board has quasi-judicial powers. It can convene hearings, assess fines, and issue criminal referrals. Also, the board was created by statute, so the General Assembly could modify its authority, as it has several times — including under court order.

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My “solution,” which I plan to write about this week, would make a statewide elected official responsible for election administration, as is done in most states. It’s either the secretary of state or the lieutenant governor. Some of those states also have elections boards. But a single person is accountable to voters. Our situation places an appointed board in charge. The only accountability comes when you have the klieg-light hearings that happened at the General Assembly last month. The General Assembly could make this change immediately.

The Assembly: You were with Carolina Journal for almost 12 years, and left as its Editor-in-Chief this January. In Wednesday's newsletter, I described Carolina Journal and NC Policy Watch as similar in their approach -- nonprofit, with some ideological slant, but also strong writing and reporting. Do you agree? What was it like working on that border of political writing and traditional journalism?

Rick: That’s a fair and accurate way to describe CJ and PW, or at least what I’m sure both aspire to do.

I cut my teeth in analytical opinion journalism, spending nine years at the libertarian Reason magazine as a reporter and editor. My boss, Virginia Postrel, is not only a brilliant editor but also has an old school background. She started in the Philadelphia bureau of The Wall Street Journal and was a reporter for Inc. before joining Reason. She believes strongly in journalistic principles of accuracy and fairness. We scored a couple of National Magazine Award nominations while I was there. I handled the research for one of them.

As editor at CJ, I wanted to ensure we had the facts on our side, and that we didn’t take cheap shots at those who disagreed with us. I always appreciated when someone who was in our crosshairs let us know that they may not have liked how we approached a story, but we didn’t misrepresent them or treat them unfairly. 

I also tried to maintain those values in our opinion pieces. I hope we did. You’ll always find people who discount what you do because you have a perspective and your donors may as well, but I fell back on the quality of what we produced and hoped it would stand on its own.

The Assembly: You've made the jump to the newsletter service Substack. There's a handful of you now that write on Substack or similar platforms as "newsletter-first" political commentators in the state. Gary Pearce, Thomas Mills, Jeffrey Billman as examples. What do you make of the political commentator landscape in NC, what's it like being in that mix?

Rick: Substack is fantastic. I’m not sure how I could have made this jump without it. Unlike the halcyon days of blogging, when you relied on a virtual tip jar, had to find or create a template for publishing, and then hope you made enough noise to be snapped up by a “real” media outlet, the sky is the limit with Substack. It handles all the technology and your mailing list, links to a payment system, and takes a percentage of every paid subscription. I provide the content and find the subscribers. I need to find more!

A few weeks ago I changed my URL from a Substack address to the more standard deregulator.net just to avoid the inevitable “What’s a Substack?” questions. Not having a Substack address also allegedly helps your pieces show up on Google and other search engines. The modest cost of paying a web host should be worth it.

I think it’s great that other commentators have moved outside the traditional media providers. The freedom to offer your views and reach an audience with only your inner voice as a moderator is liberating. And a bit scary, since you’re working without a net. Thomas graciously lets me post on his site. I need to do it more. 

I would love to have a regular gig as a political columnist at a traditional outlet, but the only way that’ll happen is if I do it for free or for the occasional cup of coffee. (Hit me up even so!) The legacy print outlets still haven’t figured out a business model that’ll work long-term, I fear. We need those organizations with institutional credibility to keep government more honest.

That said, I love what Axios Charlotte is doing. Those folks are passionate about their city. I don’t know if Axios becomes the model for local journalism in larger metros, but the crew there sure does it well. 

Check out Rick's work and subscribe at http://deregulator.net/


Tomorrow, I’ll deliver a recommendation for a way to make N.C. election management more accountable while maintaining a reasonable level of independence.