North Carolina gets new elections director at critical moment

Incoming North Carolina Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell will oversee this year's special congressional elections and prepare poll workers for the state's new voter ID law. (Photo from Ranked Choice Voting Center. )

Last week, with two special primary elections underway in Eastern North Carolina's 3rd and 9th Congressional Districts, the Democrat-controlled State Board of Elections on a 3-2 party-line vote fired Executive Director Kim Strach.

The longtime elections investigator was appointed to the top post in 2013 by the Board of Elections, then controlled by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. A political independent, Strach recently oversaw the probe into election fraud in the 9th Congressional District that resulted in the board's decision to call a new election.

Strach will be replaced by Karen Brinson Bell, who has worked for the board as an elections technician and served as elections director in North Carolina's Transylvania County for four years. Most recently, Brinson Bell worked for the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center.

One Republican member of the state board called Strach's firing a "purely political" move that "will take us several steps back." Republican legislators also criticized the shakeup, with one saying it has resulted in a "crisis of legitimacy" for the board. 

While the board members who voted to replace Strach praised her service, the head of the state Democratic Party said she "has protected Republican interests." Strach's husband, Phil Strach, is an attorney who has represented Republican legislative leaders in several cases involving gerrymandering and the state's 2013 voter ID law. 

Kim Strach's ouster came after years of legal battles over the legislature's attempts to wrest control of the elections board from the executive branch. Since North Carolina voters elected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in 2016, Republican legislators have passed multiple laws giving themselves a majority of the appointments to the board. But courts struck those laws down, because the state constitution charges the governor with making sure state laws, including election statutes, are "faithfully executed."

Seeking to get around these rulings, state legislators placed a constitutional amendment on last year's ballot that would have finally given them control over the board. But voters rejected it. Cooper then appointed a Democratic majority to the board, which is responsible for training and overseeing county election officials, certifying election results, and making administrative decisions that can limit or expand access to the polls.

Grappling with voter ID

Brinson Bell takes the helm of the state elections board as it grapples with the contentious issue of implementing voter ID requirements, which face ongoing legal challenges.

A constitutional amendment to require voter ID also appeared on last year's ballot, passing by a 55-45 margin. North Carolina's previous voter ID mandate — part of a wide-ranging 2013 law that erected other barriers to voting — had been ruled unconstitutional by federal courts, which found that the legislators crafting the law had targeted black voters with "almost surgical precision." When parts of the law were blocked a month before the 2014 election, Strach criticized the last-minute changes, arguing they could "contribute to voter confusion."

During last December's lame-duck session, the legislature hastily passed a new voter ID law under the constitutional amendment — just before Republicans lost a legislative supermajority that allowed them to override the governor's veto. The law allows voters to use employer IDs and student IDs, among other official forms of ID, but only if they meet strict criteria. The legislature is currently considering a bill that would allow more student IDs to be used for voting.

But in February, a trial court judge ruled that the voter ID amendment was invalid in a case brought by the NAACP and Clean Air Carolina. The lawsuit challenges the legislature's authority to enact the amendment because the lawmakers who narrowly ratified it had been elected in racially gerrymandered districts that federal courts had ruled unconstitutional in 2017. The NAACP has asked the state Supreme Court, which now has a 6-1 Democratic majority, to hear the case before the Court of Appeals weighs in.

Meanwhile, the voter ID law is facing a legal challenge from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), which argues that it violates several provisions of the state constitution, including the right to vote, the ban on poll taxes, free speech rights, and protections against racial discrimination. In affidavits filed with the court, the plaintiffs describe why the costs and time required to obtain a compliant ID could keep them from voting. 

SCSJ recently asked the court to halt the board's implementation of the law while the trial proceeds. Noting that the state and local boards have to educate voters and poll workers, SCSJ argued that "failing to halt the implementation process now … will incite significant voter and pollworker confusion. That confusion will ultimately result in some amount of voter disenfranchisement." 

Local elections boards are now required to offer free IDs for voting, with the assistance of the state board. In March, Strach said the state board was planning "significant voter ID education efforts, including mailings to all households and seminars in all 100 counties."