The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement chairman called an emergency meeting of the board on Thursday to address the issue of getting the legislature to provide advance notice to the board of any legislative proposals regarding elections law in the state.
Board Chairman Andy Penry proposed drafting a letter to the General Assembly asking that the board be given 24-hour notice of any proposed elections legislation to give the board a chance to comment on the legislation before it is publicly released. Some on the board felt that the discussion, and the calling of an emergency meeting was unnecessary and political in nature.
The meeting, which began at 11:15 a.m. adjourned briefly until Thursday afternoon to give the state board legal counsel, Josh Lawson, a chance to draft a letter asking the General Assembly to give the board 24 hour advance notice of any proposed elections legislation for discussion and voting at the second part of the meeting set for 1 p.m.
In an afternoon vote the board agreed to send the letter with the two Republicans on the board being outvoted by all four of the board’s Democrats and the unaffiliated voting member.
At the beginning of the meeting Penry said that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the request for advance notice of elections legislation, and not currently proposed early voting legislation in the legislature, but the conversation moved toward the substance of that legislation during the discussions anyway.
State Board Member Dr. Stella Anderson said the board was holding an emergency meeting because of the “significant proposal” that would affect early voting and that the board is in a position where it should have considerable input in the formation of elections policy.
The board is constrained by statutory authority to carry out the elections policy passed by the legislative branch and is charged with providing the General Assembly with counsel and information when sought from the legislature.
Anderson said that by not commenting on the legislation during the meeting the board was forfeiting the chance to make their opinions known on the proposed legislation.
Penry reiterated his intention in calling the meeting saying, “All I’m asking Mr. Lawson to do, all I’m asking this board to join me in asking Mr. Lawson to do, is to prepare a draft asking the General Assembly cordially to give us some notice so we may be of assistance, and to prepare a letter and for that letter to be circulated to our members and for us to reconvene and determine whether we are going to send that letter or not.”
Board Member John Lewis took a different view of the plan to send a letter, and to even call an emergency meeting in the first place.
Lewis questioned why this meeting was an emergency priority.
“My first point that I’m going to raise is, one, that I don’t quite see under the statutory language where this constitutes an emergency for us to take any action or be authorized to take any action,” Lewis said. “The sad thing is from listening to the comments, and Mr. Chairman I fully appreciate your comments that you tried to steer this away from getting into the merits of the bill, commenting on what the General Assembly is doing and whether it is in their wisdom to do whatever they are doing, but that’s their role. But the problem is that this is a public meeting now. And I hope that the news media will quote me accurately because I am sure that the other comments attacking these bills are going to be, and ultimately that is the point of this meeting is, for us to comment without seeing the legislation and doing this is political. We enforce the laws, we don’t create the laws.”
Lewis went on to say that just calling the emergency meeting, when in his eyes it was not warranted, already injects the board, which is intended to be bipartisan and not political, into political discussion to the hindrance of the board’s ability to do its job.
“Because of this emergency meeting, that’s not intended to address anything that requires immediate action, you have now injected ourselves into a political discussion, and into the politics behind whether or not these bills should pass or whether any future bills should pass,” Lewis said. “And that’s going to be damaging to this board’s ability to function, when there is no immediate requirement for us to take action, especially considering the bills are being debated now.”
Lewis said that he could not get behind anything to do with the proposed letter and that the meeting, and comments from the board members being public, would invariably politicize the board.
“This is the wrong place and we should not be here, this is not the function of this board,” he said.
Stacy Eggers IV joined Lewis in his concerns about the meeting hurting the relationship between the board and the legislature, specifically comments from the other members on the board regarding the role of the board and the legislation.
Penry circled back to the issue to make it clear that his intention was not “to poke the General Assembly in the eye” and that his concern was for ensuring the board can do its job correctly and have the legislature be able to work with the board and utilize its resources and knowledge in crafting legislation.
You haven’t heard a comment from me about the merits or lack there-of of the current bills because that is not my role or our role,” he said.
Following the discussions, Penry called a motion to send the letter to the General Assembly, seconded by Damon Circosta, the unaffiliated member of the board, which then went to a vote.
Eggers made a final comment on the motion saying that even beyond the political ramifications of the letter that having 24 hour advance notice before a piece of legislation comes out isn’t even necessarily useful for the board anyway.
Lewis agreed with Eggers that the board is wading into a political process by sending the letter, and holding the emergency meeting, and that it will hurt relations between the bodies.
“It will be poorly received and strain the relationship of the board with the General Assembly,” he said.