General Assembly overrides Cooper vetoes on election changes; Democrats file lawsuit

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Tuesday, October 10, 2023
Democrats file lawsuit after veto override
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Narrow GOP supermajorities in the General Assembly overturned five vetoes Tuesday.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- In a series of votes, the narrow Republican supermajorities in the North Carolina House and Senate overturned five vetoes by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, 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 of both parties, 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 vetoes or lawsuits blocked legislation with similar provisions - advanced this year thanks to Republican seat gains in the 2022 elections and an April party switch by a House Democrat to the Republican Party.

"If you value fair elections, bipartisan election management, an Election Day deadline, and having only citizens vote in elections, then you have much to celebrate today," said Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, and Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, in a joint statement. "These are commonsense reforms that restore faith in our elections. Senate Democrats had a chance to support increasing transparency in our elections, but they chose to mislead voters and spread hyperbolic rhetoric. Overriding this veto ensures voters can go to the polls knowing that elections are being conducted in a fair, nonpartisan manner."

Democrats immediately announced legal action after the General Assembly overrode the veto of Senate Bill 747, known as the "Elections Law Changes" bill.

The Democratic National Committee and the North Carolina Democratic Party filed a lawsuit challenging SB 747 moments after the override.

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Democrats argue that the new law suppresses voting by restricting access to early voting and makes it harder to vote - particularly for voters who are older, younger or ethnic minorities.

"North Carolina Republicans' brazen attempts to undermine the will of the people and the leadership of Gov. Cooper to strip voters of their hard-won voting rights is wholly unacceptable,"

DNC Chair Jaime Harrison said. "Democrats are fighting back to ensure that every eligible North Carolinian has their voice heard and ballot counted. In the wake of the GOP's continuous assault on democracy, we're using every tool in our arsenal to put an end to Republicans' voter suppression."

Democrats said the lawsuit is primarily aimed at getting preliminary relief on early voting provisions as part of "the Democratic Party's priority to seek maximum relief for the largest number of voters impacted by Republicans' efforts to suppress the vote."

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said North Carolina voters deserve to know their elections are safe and secure.

"Thankfully, they can have that confidence now that we have overridden the Governor's veto of this commonsense elections bill," Moore added.

The electoral changes are among a wave of GOP election laws and administrative overhauls to strengthen election integrity in the wake of the 2020 presidential elections, in which former President Donald Trump, who seeks a return to the White House, has repeatedly maintained was riddled with fraud.

Though Trump won North Carolina's electoral votes in both 2016 and 2020, Democrats said they 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.

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

"Republican efforts to change the voting laws have nothing to do with election security and everything to do with manipulating elections to entrench their power," Cooper said. "Every single eligible voter deserves fair access to the ballot box and to have their vote count, and North Carolinians will not stand for this voter suppression."

NCDP Chair Anderson Clayton added that North Carolina Republicans are launching an "all-out attack on democracy itself."

"Instead of making it easier for folks to vote, Republicans are creating as many obstacles as possible for their own constituents," Clayton said. "If Republicans thought they had a winning message that people wanted to vote for, they wouldn't have spent their entire time in the majority targeting the ballot box, handpicking their voters, and rigging the system in their favor. Democrats are fighting to return power back to the people."

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 cast 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 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 is now law.

"Gov. Cooper has made it clear that he wants full control of appointments to state boards and commissions. His desire to handpick appointees that will do his bidding serves his party, not North Carolinians," Warren said. "The knowledge and expertise of the General Assembly and members of the executive branch should be utilized, not stifled. By overriding the governor's veto, we are broadening the diversity of thought by balancing appointments from the governor, Council of State, and the legislature."

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 because of decisions that were made by the state election board during the 2020 election. A lawsuit challenging that action is pending.

The General Assembly has successfully overridden all 19 of Cooper's vetoes this year.

The Associated Press contributed.