Press Pause: After Tumultuous 2016, Courts Put North Carolina Election Changes On Hold in 2017

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It’s fair to say that no state faced more change and uncertainty in 2016 on election law than North Carolina. There were disputes pretty much all year before the election over the legality of numerous changes, including voter ID and changes to early voting – and after the election the Legislature moved to limit the new Governor’s power by making key changes to the State Board of Elections. In addition, courts ordered new elections in 2017 after finding flaws in the state’s legislative districts.

Now suddenly, thanks to the courts, all of that is on hold.

The state’s highest court has at least temporarily blocked the board of elections overhaul after the Governor alleged it violated the separation of powers. The News & Observer has more:

The state Supreme Court has restored a block on the legislature’s overhaul of the state elections board and ethics commission while Gov. Roy Cooper’s lawsuit awaits resolution.

The court sided with Cooper in an order released Monday. It did not explain its reasoning. The decision is the latest legal twist in a power struggle between Cooper, a Democrat, and the Republicans at the helm of both General Assembly chambers.

Cooper sued Phil Berger, the leader of the state Senate, and Tim Moore, the state House speaker, earlier this year over a December law that called for the merger of the five-member elections board and the state Ethics Commission, which administers ethics laws governing lobbyists, elected officials and government employees.

At issue is whether the General Assembly overstepped its state constitutional authority when it adopted a law that establishes an eight-member board to oversee elections and consider ethics complaints and issues. The governor would appoint four members and legislative leaders would appoint the other four, with the board split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

That changed the setup that had been in place before Cooper unseated former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who signed off on the new law in the waning days of his administration.

Previously, the governor had the power to appoint all five members to the state elections board, three from his party and two from the other major political party based on recommendations from that party.

The General Assembly adopted the law in a special session held weeks after Cooper was victorious at the polls. Cooper filed a lawsuit in December, several days before taking the oath of office.

Attorneys for Cooper have argued that the special session law violates the separation of powers provided for in the state Constitution and gives legislators more control over the executive-branch function of administering elections. Cooper’s attorneys also have argued that having an eight-member board that cannot act without a supermajority would paralyze decision making.

The state Supreme Court order reverses a state Court of Appeals decision last week that temporarily lifted a decision by three Superior Court judges to halt the revamp before the governor’s lawsuit is decided.

At the same time, new legislative elections have also stalled while the U.S. Supreme Court – perhaps waiting for a new ninth Justice – waits to hear the case:

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to issue a decision on whether it will review a federal court ruling last year that found state legislative districts to be racial gerrymanders. The three federal judges that issued that ruling ordered the redrawing of state House and Senate district maps by March and elections held in any new districts in 2017.

But the country’s highest court put a hold on that order weeks ago while considering whether to schedule the appeal by state lawmakers dissatisfied with the federal panel’s decision.

Both of these cases confront important issues, and it will be important to get them resolved; in the meantime, though, I wonder if election officials in North Carolina aren’t simultaneously anxious about how it will all turn out and relieved to have a bit of a court-ordered breather after a particularly harrowing 2016. Still, once these cases do resolve there could be another burst of activity – especially if special legislative elections are required.

Hopefully everyone is pacing themselves on Tobacco Road – because another sprint could be coming at any time. Stay tuned …

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