by David Bass, Carolina Journal News Service

RALEIGH — The N.C. Senate passed a bill along party lines on Tuesday, April 27, that would require the state attorney general’s office to get sign-off from the legislature before reaching a settlement on a lawsuit in which the General Assembly is a party.

Senate Bill 360 is meant to resolve the type of situation that evolved in 2020 with actions taken by N.C. State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell. Republicans claim that Brinson Bell, a registered Democrat, changed election law after voting began last year and worked with Attorney General Josh Stein, also a Democrat, to reach a secret settlement in a lawsuit brought against the state by Democrat attorney Marc Elias.

“When parties challenging a law or provision of the constitution try to change the law via lawsuit and settlement, and the legislature is a defendant, the legislature should have a seat at the table,” said Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, a primary sponsor of S.B. 360. “This bill is intended to make sure no elections director, whether Ms. Brinson Bell or someone else, ever has the power to secretly executive a mid-election law change via secret settlement with political allies.”

S.B. 360 is part of a two-part election-reform agenda being advanced by Republicans. A second measure, Senate Bill 326, would make several key changes to North Carolina election law, including revising the deadline for absentee ballots.

Democrats blasted S.B. 360 during debate on the Senate floor. Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, called the bill another example of legislative overreach and said it took away the constitutional mandate of the N.C. Board of Elections to oversee elections.

“This bill advances the false argument that a collusive settlement took place,” Chaudhuri said. “We should not be casting allegations of secretive collusive settlements and asking our executive director of the Board of Elections to take unequivocal pledges.”

Newton countered that S.B. 360 restored the proper constitutional order, with the General Assembly being responsible for writing election law, not appointed government officials. “Election integrity suffers when unaccountable bureaucrats work surreptitiously to change state law to her ideological liking,” Newton said.

For her part, Brinson Bell wrote a letter, dated April 27, to Republican leaders in the Senate denying that she participated in a collusive settlement.

“I work for the State Board, and I will continue to follow the Board’s guidance in performing my duties as state elections director,” Brinson Bell wrote. “I have always followed, and will continue to follow, state and federal law. Last year, a record 5.5 million-plus voters successfully cast their ballots during a pandemic. The State and county boards of elections are incredibly proud of the work we did to achieve such an historic election despite the difficult circumstances, and we continue to remain focused on our important work as the state’s elections officials.”

S.B. 360 now goes to the House.

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