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North Carolina GOP rams through bill giving itself more power in all election years

North Carolina Republicans seek to undermine the incoming Democratic governor.

Rep. Garland Pierce (D-Scotland) addresses protestors during a special session at the North Carolina Legislature. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome
Rep. Garland Pierce (D-Scotland) addresses protestors during a special session at the North Carolina Legislature. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

The Republican leaders of the North Carolina legislature called an emergency special session this week ostensibly to send funding to parts of the state devastated by Hurricane Matthew. Yet they used the opportunity to rush through a series of bills designed to limit the power of incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who unseated Republican Pat McCrory by a narrow margin in November.

“It now seems to me the hurricane session was just a ruse to get us here,” Sen. Jane Smith (D-Columbus) complained.

Rev. Dr. William Barber, the president of the North Carolina NAACP, agreed, and called the move “an insult to the democratic values held by all people of goodwill in this state.”

“It is immoral, it is unconstitutional, and this illegal session is a direct attack on the people of North Carolina,” he said. “To convene in Raleigh under the pretext of a special session called by the Governor to provide relief to those affected by the hurricane and wildfires continues the worst of this extremist legislature’s legacy: making unjust laws to give more power to themselves, on the backs of those most vulnerable.”

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Led by Barber and other progressive organizers, protesters stormed the statehouse Thursday, chanting “shame” and “you work for us,” as Republican lawmakers approved bills that drastically cut back how many political appointments Cooper will be able to make when he takes office. About 20 protesters were arrested, as was a local reporter.

Jen Jones with the organization Democracy North Carolina witnessed the chaotic demonstrations when they first erupted on Wednesday. “There were hundreds of people lining the gallery, all with their signs, speaking in call-and-response about the importance of democracy,” she told ThinkProgress. “It was incredibly inspiring.“

A still more controversial bill, which passed the State Senate Thursday night and goes before the House on Friday, could remake the state Board of Elections and all county elections boards so that Republicans control them in all even-numbered years — meaning every year there’s a major election.

“It’s an omnibus package of terribles,” warned Jones, whose organization focuses on voting rights. “This would dictate that a Republican must be the chair of the board in all of the state’s 100 counties in every even-numbered year, which is when most voters turn out.”

Currently, party of the popularly-elected governor is able to appoint a majority of the both State Election Board and all county election boards. Over the past few years, Republican-controlled election boards in North Carolina have waged a campaign to cut early voting days and locations and purge eligible voters from the rolls.

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These bills, should they reach the governor’s desk and get signed into law, are likely to be challenged in court. Democrats in the state argue that since the special session is itself unconstitutional, all bills passed are invalid.

“If I believe that laws passed by the legislature hurt working families and are unconstitutional, they will see me in court,” Governor-elect Cooper told reporters.

Progressive groups like Democracy North Carolina hope the bills won’t make it that far. They are encouraging people to flood the governor’s office with demands that he issue vetoes.

“Republicans have a super-majority [in the legislature], and Democrats are at a loss as to what to do to push back, so it’s coming down to ordinary people,” Jones said. “This provides a blueprint for what resistance in 2017 could look like across the country.”

UPDATE: On Friday afternoon, after the sweeping elections board overhaul bill passed on a party-line vote, outgoing Governor McCrory signed it into law. For the third day in a row, hundreds of protesters converged on the Capitol to speak out against the bill.

This piece has been updated to include additional quotes from Jen Jones from Democracy North Carolina.