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North Carolina Republicans enact election changes over Democratic governor's vetoes

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper listens as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Stein speaks at a rally Tuesday at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C.
Karl B DeBlaker
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper listens as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Stein speaks at a rally Tuesday at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C.

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina Republicans enacted vote-count restrictions and weakened the governor's ability to oversee elections and other state regulatory bodies on Tuesday by overriding Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes. Lawsuits attempting to block the new laws are likely as the 2024 elections approach.

In a series of votes, the narrow GOP supermajorities in the House and Senate overturned five Cooper vetoes, two of which address elections and voting in the ninth-largest state — a likely presidential battleground where statewide races usually are very close.

One law would eliminate the governor's power to appoint the State Board of Elections and give it to legislative leaders, while the other would end a three-day grace period to receive and count absentee ballots as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

These laws — years in the making after previous Cooper's vetoes or lawsuits blocked legislation with similar provisions — advanced this year thanks to Republican seat gains in 2022 elections and an April party switch by a House Democrat to the Republican Party.

The electoral changes are among a wave of GOP election laws and administrative overhauls that have occurred while former President Donald Trump, who seeks a return to the White House, has repeatedly made false claims that the 2020 election was riddled with fraud.

While Trump won North Carolina's electoral votes in both 2016 and 2020, Democrats see the state as a pickup opportunity for President Joe Biden in 2024.

North Carolina GOP legislators advancing the bills have not focused on Trump's grievances, but rather arguments that the legislation will promote bipartisan consensus in election administration and improve the public's confidence in election results.

But Cooper and his allies contend the election legislation is an attack on voting that will give Republicans the upper hand on close results.

The state elections board has been five members, with the governor's party historically holding three of the seats. Beginning Jan. 1, the board will be eight members, chosen by legislative leaders from both major parties and likely creating a 4-4 split among Democrats and Republicans.

Critics say these changes will lead to board impasses that will scale back the number of local early in-person voting sites and could send the outcomes of contested elections to the courts or the General Assembly to settle.

The law says the new state board also would have barely a week to decide whether to keep current state elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell on the job or hire someone else. If the board can't decide, the decision would fall to Republican Senate leader Phil Berger.

Republicans were unhappy with Brinson Bell — hired by the Democratic-majority in 2019 — for her role in a legal settlement that extended in 2020 the time for mailed-in ballot envelopes postmarked by the election date to be received and counted from three days after the election to nine days.

An omnibus voting law also enacted Tuesday in part would eliminate that three-day window and instead require mailed-in ballots be received by county election offices by the time in-person balloting ends at 7:30 p.m. on the date of the election in order to count.

The omnibus measure also prohibits officials from accepting private money to administer elections and directs state courts to inform elections officials about potential jurors being disqualified because they aren't U.S. citizens, so they can then be removed from voter rolls.

The law makes new allowances for partisan poll observers and toughens the rules by which someone who both registers to vote and casts a ballot during the state's 17-day early in-person voting period can have their choices count.

Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer, said on social media that North Carolina would be sued if the omnibus measure became law, which he called a "voter suppression bill." State courts may not be as sympathetic to litigation — as a majority on the the state Supreme Court are now registered Republicans.

Another new law with Tuesday's successful override scales back or eliminates authority from Cooper and future governors to appoint members to several other boards and commissions, including those that set electricity rates and environmental regulations. And an energy bill designed to encourage nuclear energy production and the legislature's annual "regulatory reform" measure also are now law.

Other Republican-controlled legislatures have acted against early voting — shortening windows for returning mail ballots, banning or limiting the use of drop boxes and criminalizing third-party ballot collection. The GOP-controlled Senate in Wisconsin last month voted to fire the state elections administrator over decisions that were made by the state election board during the 2020 election. A lawsuit challenging that action is pending.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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