North Carolina trial judges block election board changes made by Republican legislature

RALEIGH, N.C. — Judges in North Carolina on Thursday blocked parts of a new law that would transfer Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's power to choose election board members to the Republican-dominated General Assembly.

After a 90-minute hearing, the three state judges unanimously agreed to issue a preliminary injunction requested by Cooper. His lawyers argued that changes to the state Board of Elections and county councils in all 100 counties must stop now or his directive in the state constitution to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” will be irreparably damaged.

The Republican legislative leaders who sued Cooper can appeal the decision to the state Court of Appeals. The outcome of the injunction petition and Cooper's broader lawsuit over the law, which went into effect in October, could affect how the 2024 election is run in the ninth-largest U.S. state, where the races for president and governor is likely to be hotly contested. The changes would come into effect on January 1.

The state elections board currently consists of five members appointed by the governor – a format that dates back to 1901. The governor's party always has three seats.

The new law, which took effect after Republican lawmakers overrode Cooper's veto, would expand the board to eight members, appointed by the General Assembly based on the recommendations of key legislative leaders from both parties. This would likely cause a 4-4 split between Democrats and Republicans.

For years, Republicans have pushed in vain to change the composition of the board: they were thwarted by both court rulings and a constitutional amendment that voters rejected in 2018.

However, Republican lawmakers say this measure is different and will promote bipartisan election administration and consensus. And with Republicans now holding five of the seven seats on the state Supreme Court, supporters are hoping the state's highest court will be more inclined to uphold the law.

Cooper and his allies have countered that the changes are a power grab by the Republican Party that will lead to governance gridlocks that could erode access to early elections and send the outcomes of disputed elections to the courts or the General Assembly for a resolution. find a solution.

“Organizing fair, secure elections is critical to our democracy, and the courts have repeatedly found that partisan legislative efforts to take over the State Board of Elections are unconstitutional,” Cooper said in a written statement after the justices' ruling.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger, who along with House Speaker Tim Moore are the primary defendants in Cooper's lawsuit, said legislative leadership would continue to fight to ensure that “the people of North Carolina have confidence in the outcomes of the 2024 elections.”

“The Legislature has chosen to make the State Board of Elections a truly bipartisan board with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. Governor Cooper has filed a lawsuit to have it controlled solely by Democrats,” said Berger spokesperson Lauren Horsch.

In presenting their arguments, Cooper's attorneys drew on three state Supreme Court rulings dating back four decades that they say require a governor to have control over executive agencies to implement laws. Such control is necessary so the governor can appoint a majority that shares his views and priorities, attorney Jim Phillips said.

One of the court's previous rulings, in 2018, overturned an earlier version of the state elections board, which would also have members split equally between Democrats and Republicans but appointed by Cooper.

The latest law, Phillips told the justices, is “a much more egregious, invasive and unconstitutional structure.”

An outside attorney for Berger and Moore, Martin Warf, argued that the law should be enforced while the lawsuit continues. He also wrote this week that since the state constitution fails to expressly prohibit the Legislature from forming the Board of Elections in this way, the judiciary should not decide the issue.

“The way the Constitution works is that if there is no limitation on the power of the General Assembly to make laws, they can make those laws as they see fit in the matter of public opinion,” Warf said Thursday.

If the law comes into effect on time, changes can happen quickly. For example, if a new eight-member state board is unable to hire an executive director by January 10, the law directs Berger to appoint one.

Republicans have criticized current Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell — who was hired by the board's Democratic majority four years ago — in part over a legal settlement that extended deadlines for receiving absentee ballots by mail in the 2020 election .

Supreme Court Justices Lori Hamilton and Andrew Womble — both Republicans — and Edwin Wilson, a Democrat, gave no reason in court for issuing the order later Thursday. But Hamilton suggested during questioning that allowing the law to pass on Jan. 1 — only to potentially have it repealed later — could create confusion and disorder in a presidential election year.

“It seems to me that it is seriously dangerous to make these kinds of changes” when the Supreme Court struck down an earlier version of the administration proposed by lawmakers, Hamilton said.

The new law is not the only one being targeted by opponents. There are at least three lawsuits filed by Democrats and allied groups challenging a law that would tighten some rules for early in-person voting and eliminate a three-day grace period for receiving and counting absentee ballots , as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. . Those changes would begin with the March primary.