North Carolina’s elections board was ruled unconstitutional. Its new one might be too

Mark Harris’s fate in the 9th District sits with a state elections board made up of Democrats and Republicans, but no unaffiliated members.
Mark Harris’s fate in the 9th District sits with a state elections board made up of Democrats and Republicans, but no unaffiliated members. ehyman@newsobserver.com

As North Carolina’s two major political parties become less and less popular, they are using state law to maintain their power over elections, and a federal court could soon rule it unconstitutional.

North Carolina voters have staged a quiet revolution of sorts over the past couple of decades. It used to be that almost all voters registered as either Democrats or Republicans. But unaffiliated voters have been the fastest-growing group for years, to the point that they have passed Republicans as the second-largest “party” and they’re gaining fast on Democrats.

As of Feb. 9, there were 2.46 million Democrats, 2.09 million unaffiliated and 1.98 million Republicans in North Carolina. Within five years, there will likely be more unaffiliated voters than either Democrats or Republicans. In Mecklenburg, there are 70,000 more unaffiliated voters than Republicans. In Wake, unaffiliated voters will likely become the biggest bloc sometime this year.

In the last 15 years, the number of Democrats has risen 3 percent, Republicans 14 percent and unaffiliated voters 135 percent.

Yet this month, a new state Board of Elections held its first meeting ­– with three Democrats, two Republicans and zero unaffiliated members. Also this month, election boards were appointed in 75 counties. Those appointed included 150 Democrats, 150 Republicans and zero unaffiliated voters. This was required by law.

The major parties are using the law to cling to power, stay in charge of elections and block a third of the population from key posts. This is concerning for a number of reasons.

First, a very large pool of talent is wasted. Also, more partisan individuals end up serving on election boards, and the public begins to lose confidence in the fairness of the system. Elections board members need to be impartial and even-handed, and should not include the most strident members on the political spectrum.

The same problem emerges when it comes to candidates on the ballot. State law makes it much harder for an unaffiliated voter to run for office than a Democrat or a Republican. And while it’s true that most unaffiliated voters lean left or right, they might not lean as strongly as people loyal to and dependent upon a party apparatus.

The situation won the attention of Michael Crowell, a prominent Harvard-trained lawyer and law professor who, as an unaffiliated voter, is banned from serving on the state board of elections. He filed a lawsuit in federal court saying the ban violates his constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of association and equal protection. He plans to file an amended complaint in coming weeks, following recent legal battles over the makeup of the state and county election boards.

Crowell argues that he is “qualified to serve on a board of elections and is denied the right to do so only because of his refusal to accept affiliation with the Democratic or Republican Party.”

The same is true for a third of North Carolinians. The system is rigged. If the politicians won’t fix it, the courts should.