This election year, the road to the North Carolina Governor’s mansion runs through Durham and, well, Duke. After three weeks of legal wrangling, McCrory has vowed to concede if Durham County completes a hand recount of a batch of 90,000 votes counted late on Election Day. For election officials, McCrory’s possible concession marks the end of what has been an exhausting post-campaign fracas—in the weeks since November 8th, the McCrory campaign has filed legal challenges in nearly half of North Carolina’s counties, disputing dozens of votes in each (including those of Duke students). Boards of elections in nearly 50 counties have held emergency hearings all around the state and, importantly, in every single county in the state, McCrory will face Republican majorities that he helped to appoint himself.
It is an article of faith among democracies that the institutions overseeing elections should be independent of the government in power, or partisan interests generally. With this in mind, most countries choose election administration systems that are independent by design. For instance, Canada has an administrator chosen unanimously by its House of Commons. Some parliamentary systems, like in India or New Zealand, even hand power to a caretaker government to oversee elections. The United States, on the other hand, is one of the only developed democracies that selects its election administrators on an outright partisan basis. Those that oversee elections are traditionally elected secretaries of state or appointees of governors. Most crucially, America is one of the last remaining countries to allow partisan legislators to draw their own districts.
The partisan nature of our election administration is hardwired into our state constitutions. Elected secretaries of state (or sometimes referred to as chief election officers) are our principal state-level election administrators and nearly all have party affiliations. Administrators at the county level may be elected, and if not, are nearly universally selected on a partisan basis or with partisan support.
While most officers strive to maintain the public demeanor of a civil servant, partisan incentives may often rule the day. For instance, Colorado’s former Secretary of State Scott Gessler won election on the argument that the Democratic incumbent wasn’t doing enough to help overseas military servicemen cast ballots when “your job is to make sure people can vote.” In office, Gessler tried to block urban inactive (and traditionally Democratic) voters from receiving mail-in-ballots. In partisan administrative systems, exactly who gets to be able to vote becomes a matter of partisan debate (presumptions of impartiality were similarly strained when Gessler granted Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe a sit down interview). Acknowledging this problem, the 2014 Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommended that election administrative roles be filled like any other class of civil service professionals with specialized expertise, like the IRS, Postal Service, or other regulators, rather than partisan appointees or elected officials.
North Carolina’s system, in turn, is especially vulnerable to partisan capture. In North Carolina, the Governor is responsible for all appointments to the state board and county boards of elections. By tradition, the party in power gets three out of the five of the state board seats and two out of three county board seats.
So far, few board members have been sympathetic to McCrory’s post-election legal challenges, but boards have been more amenable to the North Carolina GOP’s plans to arrange arcane election procedures in a way favorable to Republicans. After the 4th Circuit of Appeals Court excoriated the state for its “almost surgical precision” suppressing black turnout, the Court struck down certain elements, like a photo-ID mandate and a limit on early voting hours, but left county boards of elections considerable leeway. Republicans took note.
As the News and Observer Reported, executive director of the North Carolina GOP, Dallas Woodhouse, emailed and encouraged Republican election board members to “feel empowered to make legal changes to early voting plans that are supported by Republicans. Republicans can and should make party line changes to early voting.”
As a result of the email or not, board members shifted voting hours and voting locations along partisan (and racial) lines. Guilford County closed 15 out of 2012’s 16 early voting sites, the preferred method of voting among African Americans. In vote-rich Mecklenburg County, the Board of Elections had 238 fewer early voting hours. Republicans opposed early voting sites on college campuses, and hampered traditionally-black church “Souls to the Polls” events by closing polls on the Sunday before election day in most counties. The day after the election, the NCGOP celebrated that black turnout was down nearly nine percent state-wide.
In one sense, Woodhouse’s email is a boon to Democrats–it is rare for members of either party to find such a smoking gun, and it corroborates Democrat’s claims that Republican attempts to eliminate fraud are veiled partisan attempts at voter suppression. What Democrats fear most, however, is that such chicanery is lost in the obscurity of local government politics.
The Presidential Commission on Election Administration found most election officials conduct themselves with impartiality and professionalism. This is heartening, but only to a point. It is still problematic that in our system norms, not laws, prevent excessive partisan meddling with the voting process.