North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature passed an elections bill last week — but added to it a provision prohibiting political parties from closing their primary elections to unaffiliated voters.
SB 747 stipulates that “Unaffiliated voters shall be allowed to vote in one primary of the voter’s choosing.” While North Carolina law currently only guarantees participation in a party’s primary elections to voters registered with that party, it also gives parties the ability to determine whether unaffiliated voters can cast a ballot in their primaries. SB 747, however, would take that authority away from political parties and guarantee unaffiliated voters access to party elections, effectively eliminating the option of closed primaries in the state.
Following the bill’s introduction earlier this year, the Senate gutted the original version of SB 747 that included numerous policies enhancing the integrity of North Carolina’s elections. This prompted House Republicans to rework the bill and include many of these previously removed provisions — as well as the new line eliminating closed primaries — in their version, which passed the House and Senate on Aug. 16 and is now awaiting action from Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper.
While the finalized version of SB 747 appears to be an improvement from the Senate substitute, the provision eliminating closed primaries has generated criticisms from election integrity advocates, who say forcing North Carolina’s primaries to include unaffiliated voters could artificially benefit centrist candidates. While speaking with The Federalist, Jim Womack, the president of the North Carolina Election Integrity Team, detailed how the large number of unaffiliated voters in the state could derail more conservative candidates in Republican primaries to the benefit of establishment Republicans.
According to Womack, there have been considerations by the North Carolina GOP in recent years to close off the party’s primaries to unaffiliated voters, which he speculates spooked leading Republicans in the General Assembly into supporting the provision in SB 747. In essence, the addition would bar future attempts by the North Carolina GOP to close its primaries and could box out more conservative candidates who aren’t as easily controlled or influenced as moderates.
In a statement released last week, Ken Cuccinelli, chair of the Election Transparency Initiative (ETI), criticized General Assembly Republicans for the proposed policy and predicted it will “have a devastating effect on the epidemic of disenfranchised voters who doubt that our elections are conducted with fairness and honesty.”
“[I]nstead of passing a real election integrity bill that earns the trust and confidence of voters, they’re toiling with ‘happy-to-be-glad’ measures that fail to confront many of the biggest threats to secure, transparent, and accountable elections,” Cuccinelli said.
While there are several areas of election administration ETI contends SB 747 does not adequately address, the bill includes numerous proposals supported by the group that strengthen the integrity of North Carolina’s elections. Among them are requirements that election records be retained for 22 months after an election and all mail-in ballots be received by the time polls close on Election Day.
The measure also prohibits the acceptance and use of private money in elections and mandates a process for removing noncitizens from voter rolls.