RALEIGH, N.C. (AP/WWAY) — North Carolina’s elections board — now back in Democratic hands following lengthy litigation — voted Monday to replace the Republican-backed chief administrator who recently led an investigation into absentee-ballot fraud in a congressional race.
On a 3-2 party-line vote, the State Board of Elections chose Karen Brinson Bell as the next executive director starting June 1. The vote, which took place on the eve of a do-over Republican primary for the congressional seat, effectively ousts current director Kim Strach, who has held the job since 2013.
Bell, a Duplin County native now living in South Carolina, is a former regional staffer for the elections board and ex-director of the Transylvania County elections board.
GOP legislators and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper have been fighting over the board’s composition for the past two years. First, Republicans passed laws that prevented the governor’s party from holding the majority, leaving it essentially equally divided. Then courts ruled in favor of Cooper, and the board composition shifted back to the way it was for decades, with the governor’s party getting the most seats. While the matter was in limbo, the board had eight or nine members, or wasn’t seated at all.
The state elections board in February found last year’s race for the 9th Congressional District seat tainted when Republican Mark Harris used a political operative who improperly handled mail-in ballots, according to testimony. Harris, who narrowly led after November’s votes were counted, opted not to run again. Ten other Republicans are running in Tuesday’s primary. Democratic candidate Dan McCready faced no primary opponent.
Over her nearly two-decade career at the state board, Strach also oversaw campaign finance investigations of Democratic House Speaker Jim Black and former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley, as well as Republican state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell. She also carried out a photo voter identification mandate in 2016 and addressed election security.
While praising Strach’s work, elections board Chairman Bob Cordle said Monday that someone like Bell, who has extensive election administration experience, is needed at the helm for the massive 2020 elections in all 100 counties. A new voter ID requirement, replacing the old mandate struck down by the courts, also is set to take effect in 2020.
Cordle, a Democrat, also said the 9th District probe and other investigations have revealed shortcomings among county election boards.
“Kim has been a great investigator, but we need a change in our focus for the state board to work on the administration of our elections” in the state’s 100 counties in 2020, Cordle said in a conference call. “They’re very complicated.”
Republican board member Ken Raymond argued for the reappointment of Strach, who he said politicians from both sides of the political aisle found to be fair and impartial. Otherwise, Raymond said, it looked like Strach’s removal was “strictly political.”
“Is there at all a compelling reason to make such a big change in top management structure at the Board of Elections during a time when we’re having two special congressional elections?” Raymond asked. In addition to the 9th District, voters in the 3rd District are holding a special election to choose a successor to the late U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr. A Republican primary runoff is in July, followed by a general election in September.
GOP legislators accused Cooper of using his hand-picked board members to get rid of Strach.
“With overwhelmingly effusive praise of Kim Strach coming from the members and chairman of the State Board of Elections today – including unanimous approval of a motion to issue a resolution praising her accomplishments as executive director and a dinner planned to recognize her successful tenure – it’s clear she was fired and replaced with a Democratic political activist who lives in South Carolina to exert partisan control over our state’s elections systems,” said New Hanover County Republican Rep. Holly Grange who also co-chairs the House Elections and Ethics Committee.
The state Democratic Party fired back, saying Monday that the Republican board majority appointed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory had hand-picked Strach in 2013.
The Democrats noted that Strach’s husband represented Republican lawmakers in a redistricting and voter ID legal battle with Democrats or their allies. A Cooper spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the leadership change.
WWAY reached out to New Hanover County Demorcat Rep. Deb Butler. Butler currently works on the House Redistricting Committee and serves as the Minority Whip. She does not believe that Bell will carry a bias in her work at the board.
“They’re not there to try and put their thumb on the scale,” Rep. Butler said. “They’re there to make ensure that elections are held fairly.”
Strach will work through the end of the month. On Monday, she was in Bladen County, the flashpoint of the 9th District investigation, to monitor Tuesday’s primary balloting there.