A stunningly brazen effort by North Carolina Republicans to increase their power over election rules was rejected by a court last week. But we’re likely to see more such schemes across the country.
Last November, the state’s Republican governor Pat McCrory narrowly lost his re-election bid to Democrat Roy Cooper, while the GOP, boosted by extreme gerrymandering, retained control of the legislature. But in the weeks that followed, lawmakers used a lame duck session to pass a package of measures aimed at undermining the power of the new governor and his party, and McCrory signed them on his way out the door.
That included ending the long-standing system in which the governor’s party has a majority of seats on state and local election boards. Instead, under the new GOP rules, the parties would alternate majorities each year—but Republicans would be in the majority every even-numbered year, which just happens to be when major elections take place. That level of chutzpah—to use some old North Carolina vernacular—attracted national attention. The normally mild-mannered Vox called it a “shocking power grab,” and Slate rightly labeled it an “attack on democracy.”
The move came just weeks after last fall’s election had offered a demonstration in how control of local election boards in the state can make a huge difference in voting access. Local boards, controlled by the GOP, were in charge of setting early voting schedules, with the result that some counties, including a few with large minority populations, severely cut back on hours and locations.
In Friday’s decision, three judges ruled unanimously that the election board changes violated the state constitution. Barring a successful appeal, the old system will remain in place, meaning Democrats will control the election boards while Cooper is in office.
But the ruling sets no precedent for other states—nor have state Republicans appeared to pay any significant price for it, despite the national media coverage. So with North Carolina having road-tested this tactic, it seems likely that other states might try similar moves if the situation arises. At least one of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa or Florida will probably elect a Democratic governor next year while returning a Republican legislature. All of those states have restricted voting since 2011. Given the chance to further advantage their party, and undermine democracy, by finding ways to cut into the powers–especially when it comes to running elections–of an incoming Democratic governor before he or she takes office, it’s hard to imagine they’ll resist the temptation.
Nor have national Republicans suffered for their own willingness to put their party’s interests ahead of any notion of fairness. On Monday, the Senate held its first nomination hearing for President Trump’s Supreme Court pick, after stonewalling President Obama’s choice for a year–an unprecedented violation of norms that worked out nicely for them.
This is where we are now that any need to adhere to previously agreed-upon procedure has been thrown out the window.