NC elections director removed by Democrat-controlled board

May 13, 2019

Democrats on the State Board of Elections voted in a conference call Monday to replace the state elections director, pushing the decision through as fire alarms blared and forced the evacuation of the board’s office downtown.

Reporters and the agency’s legal staff listened around a cellphone outside as board members, none of whom was there in person, voted 3-2 to replace Kim Strach with Karen Brinson Bell, a former elections director in Transylvania County.

The board’s two Republicans complained about the move and pressed Chairman Robert Cordle to justify it after Cordle spent several minutes praising Strach’s service. Cordle said the agency’s focus needs to shift to elections administration.

Before she became director six years ago, Strach was a board investigator, and she headed up the recent inquiry that led to Tuesday’s do-over election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. She also worked on investigations into former Gov. Mike Easley and former House Speaker Jim Black.

Though Cordle gave Strach kudos for the 9th District investigation, he also noted “real problems” with elections administration in Bladen County and elsewhere that contributed to the fiasco. He also said local boards of election in counties he didn’t identify “feel like they have not been well treated by the state board.”

Republican board member Ken Raymond, a former chairman of the Forsyth County Board of Elections, said he has always had a good relationship with the state office.

“The reasons you just cited don’t sound very compelling to me,” Raymond told Cordle.

As the meeting wrapped up, the board voted unanimously to prepare a resolution thanking Strach for her service. Cordle indicated a thank-you dinner may be held for her.

Firefighters gave the all-clear to re-enter the building after less than half an hour. Board spokesman Patrick Gannon said the alarm sounded after someone put a pot pie in a toaster on the fifth floor.

Strach will stay on through the end of the month and was in Bladen County on Monday to oversee preparations for the 9th District election. When she leaves, so will Josh Lawson, the board’s general counsel. He announced his resignation after the meeting ended and said via email that “five years were too few.”

Gov. Roy Cooper’s board office released a one-sentence statement about Strach’s removal, which his board appointees set in motion.

“Fair elections are critical to our democracy, and Gov. Cooper believes the State Board should work with counties to administer secure elections and protect every North Carolinian’s right to vote,” spokesman Ford Porter said in an email.

Attempts to reach Strach and Bell weren’t successful Monday. Bell sent agency employees and county election directors a letter after the meeting that said she’s already at work, though her start date isn’t until June 1.

“Our collective success is dependent upon each and every county and our common commitment to the elections process,” she said in the letter.

Strach was named director under former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013. Lawmakers extended her tenure into Cooper’s administration as part of legislation changing how elections board members were appointed. That law was later thrown out in the courts following a series of lawsuits between Cooper and the General Assembly’s Republican majority over separation of powers and control of board appointments.

The two sides went back and forth in those lawsuits for two years, resolving board of elections issues earlier this year with the appointment of a new board that Democrats control 3-2.

Strach’s husband, Phil Strach, represents Republican General Assembly leaders in a number of other lawsuits that have pitted them against Democrats over gerrymandering and voter ID. The North Carolina Democratic Party brought up Phil Strach’s legal work in a statement Monday afternoon, saying Kim Strach “protected Republican interests and refused to recuse herself from various conflicts.”

The North Carolina Republican Party called that “a misogynistic statement suggesting Kim Strach is simply a puppet of her husband instead of the capable public servant that she is.”

Pressed for details on Strach’s shortcomings, Democratic Party spokesman Robert Howard said she pushed investigations on Democrats harder than on Republicans. He said McCrory’s state plane usage wasn’t scrutinized as closely as Easley’s, that a complaint about the Republican Governors Association spending in the 2016 election lingered without a hearing and that state Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, got off easier than former state Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg, in a pair of recent campaign finance inquiries.

“These are just a few brief examples, but they underscore our belief that partisanship and politics affected this board, which Strach headed, more than publicly known,” Howard said.

Cordle didn’t mention any of this in the meeting, and Cooper’s office has not answered WRAL News’ requests for more information about Strach’s dismissal.

Common Cause North Carolina is the main plaintiff in a gerrymandering lawsuit that’s gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to overturn maps drawn by the Republican General Assembly, and Executive Director Bob Phillips said Monday that he thought Strach did a good job at the state board. He noted that his group gave her an award years ago for her tenacious investigating.

“At the same time, we understand that the board of elections has the authority to make this decision,” Phillips said in a statement. “Just as we had great respect for her predecessor, we appreciate the good work done by Kim. We’ve heard positive things about Karen Brinson Bell, and we look forward to working with her to ensure all voters are able to participate in our elections.”

Bell will serve a two-year term in the executive director’s job, expiring in 2021. She was Transylvania County’s elections director from 2011 to 2015, and before that spent five years as the state board’s liaison to 12 western counties, providing technical support and assisting with training.

She works now as a consultant with the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, which promotes instant runoff style elections. Gary Bartlett, North Carolina’s former long-time elections director, is with the Resource Center as well. He was Bell’s boss at the state board, and Kim Strach replaced him as elections director under McCrory.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who has been a GOP leader on elections issues and is heavily involved in the fight over state board control, walked up as the board meeting wrapped up outside the Dobbs Building on Monday, telling reporters Kim Strach had done a good job in a tumultuous time for the state’s election agency.

“And her reward, and her thanks, was to be fired via a telephone call,” he said.

Lewis said he doesn’t know much about the new director, except that she’s “in the Gary Bartlett orbit.”

“To go back to a Gary Bartlett crony is mind-blowing to me,” Lewis told WRAL News in a telephone interview. “It shows me that control of the process where you can protect your friends and weaponize the process against your enemies must be the goal here. ... I think it is simply to get a person that they can control in that office.”

Attempts to reach Bartlett weren’t successful Monday.

Hise, the Senate co-chairman for redistricting and elections, said in an emailed statement that Cooper “finally has what he wants.”

“The Board of Elections is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Roy Cooper’s Democratic Party,” he said, “and his first move is to fire the executive director who people on both sides of the aisle view as having a sterling reputation for independence and professionalism.”

Hise said the state board now has “a crisis of legitimacy.”

“Everybody – well, everybody except Democrats loyal to the governor – should be terrified by this development,” he said in his statement.

WRAL News asked the Cooper administration to respond to these comments, but the governor’s press office did not immediately do so.