It didn't take long for a GOP candidate to exploit the resignations of the two Republican members of North Carolina's State Board of Elections.
David Black and Ken Raymond stepped down from the board late Wednesday, and by midday Thursday, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest was calling on the U.S. Attorney General to investigate alleged collusion between North Carolina's Attorney General and Democrats on the state elections board.
In the lead-up to an election complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a host of advocacy groups had sued the North Carolina State Board of Elections to make absentee voting easier. So, with fewer than six weeks to go before Election Day, the board sought to resolve the legal disputes swiftly with a comprehensive settlement.
That goal was accomplished Tuesday.
"It was a very deliberative process," said Damon Circosta, who's chairman and one of three Democrats on the five-member, governor-appointed elections board. "There was give and take and push and pull among the various board members assisted ably by both the litigation counsel of the Attorney General's office and our own agency counsel."
After a three-hour-long, closed meeting, according to Circosta, all five board members, including the two Republicans — Raymond and Black — signed off on the proposed settlement, which still must be approved by a state judge.
The settlement would allow voters to fix the witness section of their absentee ballots by submitting an affidavit instead of an entirely new ballot. Also, the period for counting ballots post-marked by — but received after — Election Day would be extended.
Circosta saw the settlement both as an effective solution to clearing up a lot of uncertainty just ahead of the elections and a triumph of non-partisan administration. But North Carolina Republicans almost immediately attacked the proposed settlement as a Democratic-led effort to undermine election integrity and circumvent the state legislature.
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State Sen. Ralph Hise, a top member of the GOP-controlled General Assembly and a key architect of redistricting maps deemed to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered based on extreme partisanship, issued a statement Wednesday excoriating the proposed legal settlement.
“They've rewritten election laws while the election is actively underway,” Hise said. “We're witnessing a slow-motion mugging of North Carolina's election integrity.”
Then, late Wednesday, Raymond and Black, submitted their resignation letters. Black said in his letter it was not his understanding that deficient witness information could be fixed merely with a voter affidavit. Raymond said in his letter that he, too, felt misled. Neither Black nor Raymond responded to WUNC's request for comment.
"The board really should not be in the position of changing the rules midway through the game," said Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, pointing out that voters have already been casting their absentee ballots.
Republican statements align seamlessly with President Donald Trump's statements aimed at undermining public confidence in mail-in voting. Both Lt. Gov. Forest and state Senate leader Phil Berger noted that none of the settlement provisions were contained in bi-partisan legislation enacted in June to address absentee voting.
Forest is challenging Gov. Roy Cooper this fall. He and Berger accused state Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat seeking reelection, of colluding with fellow Democrats on the elections board to undermine the integrity of the elections.
“Attorney General Stein now says that this controversy is 'political theater at its most destructive' and he’s right. This scheme strikes at the very heart of our elective process,” Berger said in a statement. “The elimination of absentee ballot fraud protections in the Democrats’ corrupt, collusive settlement is part of a long-term effort already rejected by a near-unanimous legislature, a federal judge and a three-judge state court panel. Why did the Democrats concoct this performance in secret?”
Forest called on the U.S. Attorney General William Barr, a Trump acolyte, to investigate.
But Elections Board Chairman Circosta said such accusations are patently false.
"It's not up to the State Board of Elections to decide who the winner is, it's up to us to make sure that your vote decides who the winner is," he said. And that's true, he added, whether you're a Republican, Democrat, unaffiliated, conservative or liberal voter.