N.C. judge sides with Dems, halts change to state election law

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory's final days in office have been marked with controversy after his successor, Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, a Democrat, sued the state, arguing McCrory and allies in the legislature were acting to sharply curtail the power of the governor's office after McCrory was defeated in November. File Photo courtesy the office of Gov. Pat McCrory

RALEIGH, N.C., Dec. 31 (UPI) — A North Carolina judge has temporarily halted a controversial law passed by the Republican-led legislature that Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper said is aimed at curtailing his power in office.

Cooper sued the state, arguing a law passed during the state’s lame duck legislative session, while Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who narrowly lost his bid for re-election, is still in office. The change appears benign on its face, but Cooper and minority Democrats charged it could portend extended fights over future elections.

The GOP measure abolishes the state’s Election Commission and merges it with the state’s Ethics Commission. At present, the Election Commission, which oversees the electoral calendar and other administrative duties, is controlled by the governor, who appoints three of its five members. Under the new law, the new panel would have eight members split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

Republicans argued the change to a bipartisan commission is needed because of the amount of controversy and complaints from all sides generated by the 2016 election, not because their candidate lost the election.

In 2016, the Election Commission’s decisions regarding the electoral calendar proved a flashpoint in state races and the presidential election, after McCrory appointees sharply curtailed the amount of time for early voting, which typically favors Democrats.

Under present law, the commission is also responsible for setting the calendar for special legislative elections in 2017, another flashpoint in state politics with high stakes for both sides.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens on Friday sided with Cooper initially, holding off implementation of the law pending a full hearing next week.

Under North Carolina law, suits alleging violations of the state’s constitution must ultimately be decided by a three-judge panel appointed by the state’s top judge. Stephens acknowledged he will likely not be the final arbiter of the suit, but asserted halting the potential power grab by Republicans until such a panel could be assembled was in the public’s interest — and the judicial branch’s constitutional prerogative, despite Republican complaints Stephens lacked the standing to issue the injunction.

While the new election administration law is the most contentious resulting from changes made during the lame duck session, it is not the only one that has resulted in lawsuits against the state, which has found itself embroiled in a series of major political upheavals. State lawmakers passed a controversial bill outlawing transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice, a controversial voter ID law and severe restrictions on abortion rights in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Republicans also transferred control over education policy from the gubernatorial-controlled state Board of Education to the state school superintendent, a Republican. The state Board of Election has sued to prevent the change from taking place.


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