A big year for state election law

The reviews are in, and the General Assembly can take a bow for its work on election and lobbying laws.

“Unprecedented,” says Chris Heagarty, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, which monitors election and campaign-finance issues.

“Taken together, this is one of the most significant packages of election laws I’ve seen,” muses Ran Coble, a veteran observer of the Legislature who is executive director of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

“There were significant and important changes in election law this session,” comments Don Wright, general counsel for the State Board of Elections — and one of the people who must implement some of the new laws.

For one of the stagehands — Rep. Deb Ross, D-Wake — it was “a session of heavy lifting.”

Among other things, legislators settled the race for state School Superintendent. Following the procedure set forth in a new state law, they voted for Democrat June Atkinson over Republican Bill Fletcher. (Atkinson, a former teacher and educational administrator, had been leading by about 8,500 votes in the final tally before the contest became entangled in the courts.)

“They established a process and then used the process,” says Coble. It was a historic last act for the session.

Several new laws were prompted by the embarrassments that flowed out of the 2004 election. One of them, Senate Bill 223, is a major election reform. Nicknamed the “Paper Trail Law,” it will eliminate the cause of last year’s problems when a Carteret County electronic-voting machine failed to record about 4,500 votes.

The new measure requires “voter-verifiable paper ballots for all voting machines, so voters can confirm their choices and machines have paper backups,” according to Bob Hall of the nonpartisan Democracy North Carolina. The law, he notes, also complements the federal Help America Vote Act by making machines accessible to disabled citizens and requiring machines to alert voters who “overvote” by choosing too many candidates. In addition, the law mandates audits for a certain percentage of the ballots cast, to ensure that machine counts are accurate.

Another important law clears up some confusion in the statutes governing provisional balloting. In a suit argued by Fletcher, the state Supreme Court threw out 11,000 ballots that had been cast on Election Day by registered voters who voted outside their respective precincts. But both the Legislature and the State Board of Elections believed such votes were valid, and to correct the court’s reading of the law, the General Assembly restated its intent in forthright language.

Ross directed the adoption of House Bill 1115, the omnibus election legislation that addressed a number of issues, such as allowing voters to have assistance in the voting booth. The law plainly states that you vote in the county where your bedroom sits. (Note to husbands who have to sleep on the couch: If the couch is in a different county, that’s where you will vote!)

Most importantly, HB 1115 permits local election boards to allow known voters to recast their ballots if the originals are lost. This would help correct another Carteret County-type mishap. Current law had suggested that such a revote would have to be statewide.

The legislative session also fixed the publication dates for the popular State Judicial Voter Guide, allowing time for distribution to early voters.

The legislature also finally adopted a meaningful change in the state’s porous lobbying regulations. Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, says, “It was the best bill passed in this cycle.” And though he concedes that “it’s not a solution to all the problems that are down here,” he believes “it will be a big part of solving the problems.”

The bill’s main provision requires lobbyists to record all their spending on legislators and members of the executive branch. Previously, lobbyists did not have to make public those expenses that were considered “goodwill” spending — broadly defined as entertainments and events at which no specific bills were discussed.

In addition, the bill requires a “cooling-off period” for legislators and government executives who want to quit and become lobbyists. That means they have to sit out for a while and not jump right back into the process the next day, lobbying their former colleagues and employees. It also requires lobbyists to report their spending more frequently — monthly — during legislative sessions.

And finally, a little-noticed provision by Sen. Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, was adopted in the Budget Bill. To help fund the production of state voter guides and support the state’s nonpartisan election of judges, the provision turns a rarely used $50 “voluntary contribution” from attorneys into a mandatory, added fee for state law licenses. This will add an estimated $1 million to the state Public Campaign Fund.

Other election legislation died or was held over until the short session next May. These included bills allowing same-day registration and creating a voter-owned system of public financing for most Council of State offices. They will provide drama for another day.

As for this session, applause is in order.

[Former Raleigh City Council member Barlow Herget writes the “Follow the Money” column for the N.C. Center for Voter Education, which distributes it free of charge to newspapers across the state.]

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