GOP state legislatures seek greater control over state and local election offices

Jun 25, 2023, 4:26 AM

FILE - Demonstrator Gina Dusterhoft holds up a sign as she walks to join others standing across the...

FILE - Demonstrator Gina Dusterhoft holds up a sign as she walks to join others standing across the street from the federal courthouse in Houston, Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, before a hearing in federal court involving drive-thru ballots cast in Harris County. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — Lawmakers in several Republican-led states have been looking to exert more authority over state and local election offices, claiming new powers that Democrats warn could be used to target left-leaning counties in future elections.

The moves range from requiring legislative approval of court settlements in election-related lawsuits to creating paths for taking over local election offices.

In North Carolina, a Republican proposal working its way through the General Assembly would change the composition of state and county election boards and give lawmakers sole authority to appoint board members.

Republican lawmakers in Texas recently approved legislation that not only eliminates the top election official in the Democratic stronghold of Harris County, which includes Houston, but also permits the state’s chief election official — the secretary of state — to take over the county’s election office. The secretary is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, both now in Republican hands.

Election observers say it’s imperative for public trust that elections remain free of partisan manipulation and they say they worry about lawmakers deciding to assert their new powers for political gain.

“There are ways that states can intervene and help local election officials,” said David Levine, a former local election official in Idaho who is now a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. “Instead, we are seeing states that are enacting laws that could introduce new challenges to the conduct of U.S. elections.”

Attempts by Republican legislatures to expand their power over how elections are run have soared since the 2020 presidential election, spurred by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud. Republican lawmakers characterize the moves as necessary oversight aimed at improving elections, while Democrats criticize them as power grabs that could be used to interfere in voting or ballot counting.

The offices that oversee elections at the state or local level are primarily filled by people who win partisan elections or are appointed in a process that involves partisan officials. But those in the jobs have typically worked to maintain a nonpartisan approach to running elections. Since the 2020 presidential election, a few of these positions have been taken by people who rejected the results, raising doubts about how they will run their office.

Some of the legislation passed during that time by Republican lawmakers has led to additional concerns about partisan interference. Lawmakers in 13 mostly GOP-controlled states have passed an estimated 15 bills that either expanded lawmakers’ authority over elections or took some action to interfere with local election administrators, according to data collected by the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks voting-related legislation in the states and advocates for expanded voter access.

In Texas, laws just passed by Republican lawmakers and signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott will abolish the elections administrator’s office in heavily Democratic Harris County, which includes Houston and has more than 2 million voters. The laws also provide a way for the state to take oversight of the county’s election office in the future.

The rush by the Texas GOP to shake up elections in the nation’s third-largest county — and one with large numbers of Hispanic and Black voters — followed limited problems in November’s elections that included a shortage of paper ballots and some polling locations opening late. Previous stumbles also have put Harris County elections under scrutiny by Republicans, including 10,000 mail ballots that weren’t counted the day of the 2022 primary.

“This is about performance, not politics,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican.

Leaders in Harris County have accused Republicans of using the issues as an excuse to take greater control of elections in a place that is increasingly tilting toward Democrats. A lawsuit is expected.

The county was virtually split in the 2012 presidential race. By 2020, Democrat Joe Biden easily won Harris County by double digits.

“This has been a big saga of the state deciding that they don’t like the way Harris County residents vote, so instead they’re going to take control of the Harris County elections apparatus,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat and the county’s top elected official.

In North Carolina, where Republicans control the legislature, lawmakers are making another attempt to take power away from the governor, a Democrat, in deciding who serves on election boards. The moves come after Republicans were thwarted in previous years by the courts and by voters, who opposed a 2018 constitutional amendment.

Republicans, who now hold veto-proof majorities, envision an eight-person State Board of Elections that likely would be comprised of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, appointed by legislative leaders of both political parties. It would replace the current five-person model, with appointees of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper based on lists of candidates provided by the two parties. Under current state law, no more than three members of the board can be of the same political party.

Republicans have pointed to a over mail ballot deadlines during the COVID-19 pandemic between the Democratic-controlled board and a union-affiliated group as proof of partisan mischief.

“Those actions were enabled by a board that circumvented the legislative process and caused North Carolinians to lose trust in the election process,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican. “Now we will take the necessary steps to begin rebuilding that trust.”

The elections bill, which passed the Senate this past week, also would reduce the size of county election boards from five members to four. Legislative leaders of both parties would appoint the members, rather than the current model in which the governor has one appointment and the State Board of Elections fills the rest of the seats. Democrats see the change as a recipe for stalemate.

“This is going to result in uncertified election results, uncertainty and endless litigation,” said Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Democrat.

Fears of a takeover did not come to pass in Georgia after the GOP-controlled legislature passed a bill in 2021 that gave the State Election Board the power to intervene in county election offices and remove local election officials. After its review clause was triggered by Republican lawmakers, the board launched an examination of Fulton County, which includes much of Atlanta and has had a history of election troubles.

After the recently decided against taking over its election office. Matt Mashburn, a Republican appointee to the board, said the “talking heads were wrong” when they suggested the law would be used to meddle in local elections.

“I think the process has been very good and thorough, and everybody took their time,” he said.

In Wisconsin, state election commissioners are scheduled to meet this coming week to consider whether Meagan Wolfe, the state’s nonpartisan election administrator, should serve another term. It’s one of the relatively few examples of nonpartisan election administration in the United States.

Commissioners are weighing the chances of Wolfe surviving confirmation in the Republican-led Senate, where some lawmakers have pledged not to support her despite weaken the bipartisan election commission, which has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.

Kathy Bernier, a former Republican state senator and county election official who has spoken out against false claims of widespread fraud, said commissioners face a tough vote.

“The difficulty with both Republicans and Democrats right now is they don’t trust anyone as nonpartisan,” she said. “So whoever they pick, one side or the other is probably going to have a complaint or two.”


Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Atlanta; Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina; Paul Weber in Austin, Texas; and Harm Venhuizen in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.

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GOP state legislatures seek greater control over state and local election offices